Understanding the Why

This morning around 11AM, Olin decided to ride his little red wagon through the busiest intersection in Allamakee County.

Tim says he heard a knock on the door, assumed it was one of the kids (who were all playing outside), and yelled “Stop knocking!” When the knock  persisted, he answered it and was taken aback to find a cop on the doorstep with our oldest son. The officer explained that he had found Olin in the main street, attempting to ride his wagon down the hill. Tim said thank you and mentioned that Olin is autistic.

The officer’s response: “We know.”

Tim thanked him and shut the door, and couldn’t get through scolding Olin about the danger without chuckling incredulously. Daddy was punishing him and laughing at him, and Olin marched off to his room, chastened and offended. I laughed when Tim told me about it, because I was absolutely flabbergasted. He did what? Now, I understand that pulling a stunt like that is kind of a “kid thing”. I can imagine my other son and his friends doing something similar. The conundrum is in who is doing it, and why.

As a parent, I need to understand the why of my children’s actions. With my other kids, it comes naturally. They think like normal kids, their actions reflect that, and I can predict with a reasonable amount of certainty what their thoughts and actions might be. Olin is different. He does and says a lot of flat-out weird things that seem random or nonsensical, and are initially more upsetting because of it. If I think about it awhile, and tilt my perspective 35 degrees to the left, I can generally figure out the logic behind his bizarre actions or statements. And I need to do that. I need to understand where he’s coming from, so I can predict where he’s going.

He will suddenly scream out a random word, Tourette’s-fashion. In the car, or the middle of a conversation, or at the dinner table, he’ll just shriek out. It took me several months to finally figure out that they weren’t random words. He would catch sight of an object of interest and shout it out. It could be seeing a combine in a field as we drove, or catching a glimpse of a garbage truck on TV in a restaurant. Recognition, exclamation. Eyes to mouth, with no pause to consider where he was, who he was with, or whether or not you should be yelling in the grocery store. His outbursts were less disturbing once I figured out the reason.

He lies down in the gravel parking lot next to the road to play with his construction equipment, rather than playing in the perfectly good sandbox 30 feet away. The parking lot is dangerous to play in upright, much less lying flat, but he persists. I puzzled out why: 1) if he lies down, he can get really close to watch the wheels move, and the sand change as the bucket passes, which is what he finds interesting about the toys 2) he has a very strong glasses prescription and sees things much better when he is really close, thus the peering from inches away, 3) he has low muscle tone – he sits slumped over and tires easily anyway – lying down saves energy, and 4) he can’t lie down in the sandbox – there isn’t room. The parking lot is a big, open sandbox. Why not play there? Cars, passersby, danger or risk never even enter into his thinking. Knowing this about him is very helpful in locating him when he goes outside.

Olin had told Tim he was pretending the wagon was a go-kart. If he had mentioned a vehicle on his list, it would make sense. Trains, tractors, combines, choppers, spreaders, garbage trucks, school buses, city buses, any of a dozen or so specific vehicles that are consistently of interest. Go karts are not, and never have been, on this list. He just got home from a weekend with Grandma Sherry, so we thought maybe they had watched a video, or seen a go-kart, or something that would put it in his mind. Tim texted his mom, and she said they hadn’t done or seen anything related.

I quizzed Olin.  “I just wanted a go-kart,” he told me, “or a John Deere Gator thing. Like, one of those things with a battery at Wal-Mart that you can be in and go around.”

“So, a vehicle? Just any kind of thing that you can be inside, and drive?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “I was gonna do that. I went up there by where the handicap parking is, on the hill. I had the wagon, and I put some leaves in it to ride, to see if it would go, and I was gonna ride too, but it wouldn’t go, and then that guy came and said go home. He came to my school once, I know him. But, he made me go home.”

Our house is in a hollow. There is a pretty good hill half a block away. It isn’t too hard to walk up. If you turn the corner at the top, there is a nice steep descent, perfect to ride a wagon down.

This hill happens to be the main north-south passage through Waukon. It’s crowned by the courthouse, and banks quickly downward to a stop light that joins it with the main east-west street. It is generally a pretty busy street that, aside from local traffic, carries many of the heavy hauling trucks headed for the Mississippi. But Olin wasn’t thinking about that; he was looking for a hill.

Okay, I understand where he was coming from with that part of it. But, what about the act of riding a wagon down the hill? That seems out of character. He is usually very cautious when it comes to things like climbing playground equipment or jumping into a pool, riding a new ride at the fair, or even descending unfamiliar stairs. Like his other actions, the caution makes sense when I think about it from the right angle. He doesn’t see things on the floor or changes in terrain because of his eyesight. His low muscle tone makes him a little weaker and clumsier than he might otherwise be, so he is hesitant to try things where he might fall or get hurt.

Riding a wagon down a hill seems like an excellent way to get hurt, to me. It requires the coordination to climb in and sit down, and the strength to push off. Why would he attempt that? All I can think is that it never occurred to him that he might get hurt. Maybe he was so focused on the idea of driving his ‘vehicle’ that he didn’t consider any of the other factors. That feels right, and makes sense with his comments on the incident.

Then, I wonder about the next time he gets an idea like that. Is this an isolated incident, or a new precedent? Are we entering a new stage in his development? Bigger kid, bigger ideas; broader area of exploration. That’s true of any kid, but opens a new world of risk for Olin. How am I going to protect him the next time his particular combination of intense minute focus and broad-spectrum obliviousness puts him in danger?

Explaining the incident, Tim chuckled and shook his head, “He could have been dead before I even knew he was out of the yard,” he said several times. “The tracker wouldn’t even have helped – he was in danger before I knew he was gone.”

“You know that people who drive go-karts and trucks and tractors have licenses, and have to follow the rules of the road, no matter what they’re driving, right?” I asked Olin.

“Yeah, I have a license,” Olin insisted, “I can do it.” (He does, technically. The police came to school this fall and did a bicycle safety test with all the third graders, and the kids got a little personalized, laminated certificate from the police department. Olin was the only kid in the grade who did not pass, but they gave him the certificate anyway so he wouldn’t feel left out. The teacher called to tell me they had done so, and to stress that he had not passed.)

I tried to explain road safety and being aware of other drivers, then revoked TV privileges for the day, until Tim and I could figure out what kind of consequence would be right. I can’t really punish him. He has figured out that he did something to be embarrassed about, and he can tell we’re upset about it, but doesn’t understand why.

This afternoon, he asked to wash his wagon. I think he was attempting to make reparations, because he diligently scrubbed off the wagon, the Little Tykes tractor, and its exceptionally dirty trailer. He showed me proudly, then asked, “Um, since I did such a good job, can I have something good like some video game time?” I told him he could have a hug and my gratitude, and he was still grounded from screens for the day.

I can’t keep eyes on him 24 hours a day, and I can’t confine him to the house. I can’t have him playing in the middle of Main Street, though, either. I need to know how Olin is thinking to craft a world where he can be safe, but still free to explore and learn.  It takes more than one incident to see a pattern and figure out his thought process, but I’m worried that the next time, he won’t be so lucky. For now, all I can do is remind him of road safety rules for the 382nd time and hope his angels can keep up.


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