Is Martin curious?
When Martin was a toddler, when his autism had emerged but Adrian and I did not yet recognize it, I thought he was curious about mechanics. He spent hours staring at mechanical devices. I don’t mean that as hyperbole; unless someone intervened, Martin would stare without stopping, for however long we left him. If I wanted to make dinner, I could push the upright vacuum into the middle of the living room and count on Martin to remain, indefinitely, within 36 inches of the appliance, circling to see from different angles, lying down with his head by the wheels. On the street, the only time I could be confident that he wouldn’t bolt was when we had an excavator or backhoe or other piece of heavy equipment to look at. Then he would stare. Stare. Stare.
You ask, How did we not recognize autism? I answer, First-time parents. Give us a break.
After we started autism recovery, Martin stopped gazing at mechanics, and his echolalia (which had been his lone form of spoken language) eased into perseveration. At that time, I probably would not have called Martin curious. His mind got into ruts, and he asked the same question repeatedly. He seemed uninterested in what was new. How could a boy who stuck to one topic, for weeks, be called curious?
Still, we were grateful for what we’d got. At least he put together the sentences, and later questions, on which he perseverated. That’s a step up from echolalia.
Martin still perseverates today, though less. He cycles through topics of interest. We’ve spent the last couple months on street signs. He wants to know everything about street signs. Why does the sign for “playground ahead” have only a see-saw on it? What is a shoulder? Why can’t you drive on it? Mommy, slow down! There’s a speed zone ahead. Before street signs, Martin was into phases of the moon, and facts about the moon. Before that, musical instruments.
Despite the perseveration, Martin’s real, natural curiosity is starting to make itself known, through his ever-increasing language skills. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard questions like these:
In the car, as “Fire and Rain” comes on the radio: “Mommy, what is James Brown signing about?”
Upon finding out that I would be gone for four days to attend a conference (A1!) in Chicago: “What is the conference about?”
Looking around my home office, and realizing that I have portraits of three deceased cats on the wall, when in fact I’ve had not three but four pet cats who’ve died: “Why don’t you have a picture of Tiny Rachel on the wall?”
On a lazy weekend morning, after he climbed into bed with me and Adrian: “Mommy, why did you decide to marry Daddy?”
I’ve been ecstatic about each such question. I do, however, need to add a caveat: Sometimes Martin doesn’t really listen to the answer I give him. Sometimes he poses the question, then interrupts my answer to ask another question or introduce a new topic. When that happens, I wonder whether he’s actually being curious, or whether he’s just trying to control the situation (this happens) by having me answer his choice of question. Ah, well. It is what it is.
Hey, are you wondering why I don’t have a portrait of Tiny Rachel in my home office? Tiny Rachel was my first cat. I adopted her, all five pounds of her, just after I graduated college. She saw me through my first master’s degree, law school, a total of 13 apartments, work, cohabitation, marriage, my second graduate degree, and finally, pregnancy. Tiny Rachel was whip-smart, and full of piss and vinegar. She hated everyone but me. She died three months before Martin was born, and I think she surrendered some of her spirit to him. I’ve never really been able to admit that Tiny Rachel is gone. It’s been seven years. I need a few more before I can hang her portrait.