Martin’s Bundle: This Symptom, and Not That Symptom

After church services this morning, a younger member of the congregation approached me with a question. His psychology class is covering a unit on autism. They’ve learned about autism-related behaviors like not wanting to be touched, making no eye contact, and lacking affection. If Martin has autism, then why is it that, every time this young man sees us, Martin is snuggling on my lap or hugging me or smiling at people he knows?

I gave him the explanation, as far as I understand autism (which, I admit, is not very far). Autism is defined not by a root cause, but by symptoms, and the disorder can encompass myriad symptoms. Not wanting to be touched is one such symptom. So are, for example, taste and texture issues with food, or self-stimulating behaviors arising from sensory overload. A child on the spectrum may exhibit all these symptoms, or any group of them—what I like to call any “bundle” of symptoms.

Martin’s primary symptoms, I explained, are insufficient joint attention—he isn’t always interested in what others around him are doing, even if the others around him are Mommy and Daddy, and they’re pointing to pictures in front of his face—, language delay, inconstant eye contact, and mild self-stimulation.

Does Martin get upset if things are not the same every time he encounters them? the young congregant asked.

He does, in weird ways, I responded. If we drive to Brooklyn, he insists on taking the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel upset him. And altering our plans sometimes prompts a tantrum. Adrian and I put a lot of effort into making sure Martin understands our schedule for any given day (or even hour), and that we stick to whatever we describe. Also, when Martin finds himself in an unfamiliar situation, or overwhelmed, he tries to make order with whatever he has at hand; on our trip to South America last week, in the garden of a busy household with cousins scampering left and right, Martin sat beneath a blooming tree, gathered strobiles, and stacked them side-by-side, into a toy speedboat, repeatedly. Order.

Even as I described those symptoms, the after-church conversation reminded me of a topic Adrian and I discuss often, namely, just how lucky we are in terms of Martin’s particular bundle. Martin eats more or less anything I serve him, facilitating his ultra-restricted diet. He wears any fabric. He displays strong affection for me, Adrian, Samara, his babysitters, his grandparents, even our friends and neighbors and extended families. Honestly, I think I would have great difficulty parenting a child who did not demonstrate his love. I am plenty tested by our cats, with their stand-off-ish nature, and that I can chalk up to their not being human. (In the event that you, amazing reader, parent a child who does not reciprocate affection, please add that to the list of many reasons why I salute you.)

The after-church conversation also made me consider this reality: Martin stands out less than he used to. Today, for the first time, he remained in his seat for the entire church service. Eight months ago he would have gone crawling under the chairs, seeking a snug and secure spot. One month ago he would at least have flopped onto the floor, or wandered away. Any person who is acquainted with children must perceive Martin’s language delay, or wonder about his tendency to ignore his name. Of course they must. But more and more I wonder whether the label autism still comes to mind when strangers meet Martin.

I left church today feeling fortunate.

Fortunate based on Martin’s particular “bundle,” and fortunate because we have seen even that bundle begin to splinter.

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