Autism and Special Talents

There is a misconception about autism that every person with this diagnosis has some kind of super-talent along the lines of the toothpick counting in Rainman. I have had a few people ask me what Maggie’s special talent is. This leads me to explain that although she has many talents and is special in every way, she is not a savant—Ray, the main character in Rainman, is an autistic savant, and it is the savant distinction that is demonstrated when he memorizes the phone book or knows how many toothpicks are on the ground. An estimated 10% of people with autism have this savant quality.

But I think I may have been wrong. I’ve always known that her mind is sharp and that she understands much more than she would like us to believe. And I knew that she knows her seasons and enjoys routines. What I didn’t grasp is that she has a whole calendar going on inside her head. And that she will throw the past in your face more than Timehop, unforgiving jeans, and your mother-in-law combined.

It started on Christmas Eve when she began shouting cinnamon bun obscenities at me. We always have cinnamon buns on Christmas morning and it is a good thing she realized that I hadn’t bought them so I could dash to the store. I was surprised that she thought of it ahead of time, but didn’t make much of it.

On Boxing Day she asked non-stop about the jungle. I thought she was referring to the state of my leg hair, but soon realized she was excited about Jungle Sport—a climbing apparatus brought into the school’s gym for a week each year. She loves it and remembered it happens in January. The school didn’t order it this year. Maggie looked in the gym each day in the same way I look for packages on my porch.

On the Thursday of Easter weekend Maggie came out of school and listed her agenda that Grace’s friend should sleep over that weekend in their “punk beds.” I think this means bunk beds, and that I was supposed to swing by Ikea as well, seeing as how we do not own bunk beds. I could pick up cinnamon buns there too just in case. Grace reminded me that her friend slept over on that weekend the year before. Maggie shouted about it the entire weekend. I first tried reasoning with her but quickly resorted to eating her chocolates in my non-punk bed.

Last summer we skipped the first week of her camp because of where Canada Day fell in the week, but this year she went from day one.

It’s almost like we’re new at this.

She expected the field trips to be in the same order, and on the same day of the week as last year, and she perseverated on whatever trip she felt should be happening. I finally clued in that the trip she talked about non-stop the first week was during the second official week last year, which would have been her first week. And that last year the trips were on Wednesdays, whereas they were on Thursdays this year. The day we followed a school bus into the parking lot on a Wednesday was the saddest day ever. She felt vindicated that no matter how much we rambled about the trip not being until the next day, we were clearly wrong. There was a bus to prove it. Unfortunately, the bus was not for her, and when it finally sunk in mid-day she was devastated.

I took her to the store on a Monday to buy chips. The next Monday she talked about sour cream and onion chips all day, and her leaders didn’t know why. Apparently doing anything that Maggie likes becomes a binding contract that’s harder to get out of than a Columbia House subscription.

Our final calendar blunder was in taking our holidays the wrong week. We always camp or go away during the very last week of the summer, but this year we went to a family camp during the third-last week.

When we returned home Maggie immediately changed into sweatsuits, running shoes and socks, when all summer she would only wear crocs, and never anything with sleeves. Summer was now dead to her, and was not to be mentioned. She began pleading for pumpkin patches, apple picking, hay rides, and jumping in the leaves. She wore full sweatsuits during heat alert days, and when it dropped from sweltering to just plain hot she requested a fluffy hat and mittens. I refused to get them out for her so she got creative.

Won’t tell me where the mittens are? Fine. I’ve got socks.

Won’t tell me where the mittens are? Fine. I’ve got socks.

The kids went back to school last Tuesday. Maggie ran right to the couch in her classroom and fished out the toy she was asking about at the beginning of the summer. She knew exactly where it was even though she hasn’t mentioned it since July. And then she demanded the library. Because last year library was first period on Tuesdays. Of course it was.

So I think I have to change my answer when people ask me about her special talent. Google Calendar has nothing on her. And in this family full of ADHD, just knowing what day it is today is more advanced than the rest of us. Maybe it’s time to get working on that card counting skill. Can we put that in her IEP?

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