Sunday, December 4, 2016

Surprising Gifts

Yesterday, an autism mom friend shared an interesting article on Facebook that caught my attention. Entitled “Top 10 Traits of Individuals with Autism Which Get Overlooked,” this blog essay explains unique gifts people with autism sometimes possess. [To read this article, please click here.] A common saying regarding individual differences among people with autism goes, “You’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”; however, certain traits appear to be common in many people with autism. This particular article highlights some rare talents that many people with autism seem to share. As I read through the list, five of them immediately resonated with me because they describe some of Alex’s unique gifts perfectly.

“People with autism have exceptional long-term memory.” This trait highlights the ability to remember details from many years ago and the aptitude for rote learning and recollection of facts. If Alex hears or sees a particular year, he will often tell us something he remembers specifically from that time, even if it seems rather insignificant, such as having a cold on that date. He often reminds us of the date of the Super Bowl Sunday when he was little and threw up seven times. (I, on the other hand, chose to block out the memory of that day!) As I play Jeopardy with Alex every weekday, I’m amazed by the specific facts he can recall, especially about history, geography, and science. When I ask him how he knows this information, he can tell me his source of facts, such as a particular book, website, or television show. Apparently, he can visualize these details in his mind and rapidly retrieve them from his memory, which amazes me. Also, he always remembers everyone in the family’s birth date, which helps me send birthday cards on time every year.

“People with autism excel at auditory and visual tasks.” Besides his ability to visualize details from his memory, Alex also has exceptional auditory memory. He would be a whiz at the old game show Name That Tune because he can recognize familiar songs after only hearing a few of the opening notes. In addition, he can tell us the name of the group or singer of the song. Because of his eclectic taste in music, he seems to have a large music library stored in his head. We are also discovering that he knows many song lyrics as he has recently begun singing aloud.

“People with autism demonstrate impressive math skills.” I would go a step beyond and say that Alex has savant math skills. His ability to calculate math problems mentally with accuracy and speed is nothing short of astonishing. Unlike the character of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, however, Alex can use his math skills in practical ways and has an awareness of how much things cost, probably because he watches The Price Is Right every day and follows the stock market faithfully. In addition, he pays attention to gas prices, noting their rise or fall. When we are driving in the car, he will tell us whether the gas prices have gone up or down since previous day, and he informs us of the difference in prices between gas stations as we drive along. For example, he will say, “Gas is two cents cheaper at Luke Oil than at Family Express.” This requires him to notice the prices on the gas signs, remember the exact amounts, compare/contrast the prices, calculate the difference, and communicate to us his observations. He saves us from having to check the Gas Buddy website, and we find his enthusiasm about sharing his data endearing. Again, his keen memory serves him well because he can not only see numbers in his mind to solve problems, but he can also easily recall over one thousand digits of pi, picturing the sequence of numbers as clearly as if he were reading them off the page.

“People with autism have an eye for detail.” Alex is amazingly perceptive, especially when it comes to his beloved numbers. For example, whenever our car thermometer registers the outdoor temperature as 63 degrees, he’ll excitedly tell us, “Sixty-three! That’s like Mommy’s, Aunt Tammy’s, Aunt Kim’s, Aunt Babs’, and Aunt Pat’s height in inches!” (Yes, he has several female relatives who are all the same height.) He also notes when the car clock registers the same number in minutes as the temperature, such as when it’s 5:43 and 43 degrees. He’ll enthusiastically share this information and exclaim, “That’s rare!” (However, it’s not as rare as one might think because this phenomenon seems to happen at least once a week.)

Alex also has an eye for errors, which makes him an excellent proofreader. At basketball games, he often tells us when the scoreboard is wrong, yet he patiently waits for the mistakes to be corrected. He brings us books that have typos and asks us to fix the misspelled words or missing punctuation, showing that he inherited his English teacher parents’ bent for precision in writing. Last week, he brought me one of his NASCAR books and indignantly told me that it was incorrect about what year Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500. Alex was right; the book was wrong. Last night as we were watching Music Choice on television that features songs from particular decades along with quick facts flashed on the screen about the artists, he suddenly said, “There’s an apostrophe missing.” Not seeing the error at first glance, I asked him to show me where. He pointed to the screen and explained, “Didn’t needs an apostrophe.” By golly, he was right; they had forgotten to put the apostrophe in that word. Not only am I impressed with his precision and ability to notice small details, but I’m also pretty proud as the one who taught him grammar that he knows the rules so well.

“People with autism are non-judgmental.” Alex doesn’t seem to notice people’s appearance; therefore, he does not judge people based on the color of their skin or their size, although he is impressed by very tall people. Perhaps because his eye contact is not very good, he pays more attention to people’s voices. More important to Alex than how people look is how they act, and he seems to be intuitive about people, recognizing and appreciating those who are kind to him. He seems to see past the exterior and focus on the interior––the good hearts he can easily recognize.

Despite the difficulties autism has imposed on Alex’s life, he has been blessed with special gifts that allow him to see the world in unique ways. As his speech has improved over time so that he can convey his thoughts, we have been able to glimpse how his mind works and how he perceives the extraordinary in ordinary occurrences. Moreover, we have been able to share his enthusiasm for everyday life and the joy he finds in unexpected places.

“It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have.” I Corinthians 12:11

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