Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nice to Meet You. How Many Teeth Do You Have?

This past week was an interesting one for Alex because he had an opportunity to meet two new people and visit with three more that he hadn’t seen in a while. Although a stereotype of autism is difficulty in adjusting to new situations, Alex loves meeting new people because he can ask them his somewhat offbeat questions as he tries to get to know them better, or at least so that he can mentally quantify them in his mathematical mind. When most people meet someone for the first time, they ask about the other one’s occupation, family, hobbies and interests, etc. However, Alex only really wants to know things that can be answered with a number. In many ways he reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books The Little Prince in which the narrator criticizes adults for their fascination with numbers, stating, “Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters…Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.” Indeed, Alex must truly be a grown-up because he sees nothing wrong with any of these questions, and if we hadn’t warned him repeatedly about not asking adults their age, weight, and salary figures, he would boldly ask for this personal information.

On Monday, he met his new behavioral therapist, who will replace his current behavioral therapist who is moving out of state. His current therapist, Melissa, has been very good to prepare him for the change and allowed him to ask questions to ease any concerns he might have. To make the transition smoother, the two therapists will both see Alex for a couple of sessions so that the new one can observe the therapy session routines and so that Alex can be with a familiar person as he gets to know the new one. When I first met his new therapist last week, I knew right away that Alex would take to her instantly because she has a pleasant voice, something he values greatly. After Melissa introduced the new therapist to Alex, she asked him if he’d like to ask her any questions. He turned to me, knowing full well my answer would be no, and inquired if he could ask her age and weight. I reminded him that we don’t ask adults those questions and suggested that he try again.

Undaunted, he asked her how tall she is, and she told him that she was very short at 5’1”, and I could see him mentally putting the four of us in a lineup of her at the shortest, me next at 5’3”, then Melissa at 5’6”, and himself the tallest at 6’0. This made him smile. Next, Melissa explained to the new therapist about Alex’s system of ranking people’s voices, an imagined range he calls “dropodos,” and asked Alex to tell each of us what our dropodos level was. In line with our heights, from shortest to tallest, each of us was assigned a number corresponding to his perception of how deep and strong our voices are. Alex was further fascinated by his new therapist’s voice because, as a native of Turkey, she has a slight accent, something he finds desirable in people, perhaps because he has grown up listening to the Brooklyn accents of my husband and his family and the Southern accents of my family.

After Alex had noted her height and voice, I knew what his next [odd] question would be. “How many teeth does she have?” I’m not certain why Alex needs to know this information, but I suppose this numerical value is just another way to classify people and perhaps measure their ages since he knows children have fewer teeth than adults do. Also, Alex has always enjoyed going to the dentist, and he may associate thinking about teeth as a pleasant experience. Nonetheless, he was delighted that his new therapist had an intriguing answer for him. Like him, she currently has all 32 of her teeth, but she explained that in June she will have either two or four of her wisdom teeth removed. Unfazed by his unusual question, she told him that she can tell him more about it in a couple of months, when she will be able to update him with a new tooth count. This answer delighted him so much he shuddered with joy. Consequently, their first meeting was a success because Alex found all of her answers to be satisfactory.

On Thursday, Alex had a surprise visit from Ed’s family, who flew in to Chicago to see my nephew’s graduation from Navy boot camp this weekend and stopped by to see us, as well. Knowing that he would repeatedly ask us when they would arrive, we didn’t tell him they were coming beforehand. Handling the surprise amazingly well, he was just happy to have people that he could ask his series of questions. Because Ed’s sister and her husband had been here a couple of years ago, he remembered them, but he had new people to interview in Ed’s younger sister, whom Alex hadn’t seen in many years, and in my nephew’s girlfriend, whom we had not met before. Since Alex knows everyone’s birthdate in the family, he didn’t need to ask his aunts or uncles their ages, and I cut him off before he could ask my nephew’s girlfriend. I could see the wheels turning in his mind that he really wanted to ask how much everyone weighed, but wisely chose instead to ask them their heights. He found it interesting that his two aunts and I are all exactly the same height, but he seemed more pleased to have discovered that his uncle is taller than he is.

After lunch, Alex decided to resume his questioning by asking his aunt how many teeth she has, and she kindly obliged him by actually sitting there and counting them aloud for him. This thrilled him, as he again happily shuddered because someone was taking his question seriously. She went on to explain that while her son was in boot camp, they removed all of his wisdom teeth, so he had gone from 32 to 28 teeth recently, which Alex also found interesting.

We’re pleased that Alex has an inquisitive mind and enjoys meeting people, and we appreciate those who seem to understand his need to ask somewhat unusual questions to get to know them. I guess one good thing about Alex’s gift for numbers and excellent memory is that he would make a good witness: he could easily tell a person’s height, describe the person’s voice, and detail their dental records. Fortunately, he will likely never need to share that information, but that knowledge allows him to remember the people he’s met, using the parameters that have meaning and value for him.

“Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding.” Proverbs 2:3

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