My four year-old son has big, blue eyes and a smile that will win you over in 0.25 seconds. He also has a few autistic tendencies and quirks that can make him, on occasion, a bit of a handful.
To be honest, I think he’s progressed far enough to no longer technically qualify for his earlier diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. Still, his little mind doesn't process the world in the same way as most kids around him, and he requires a very different sort of parenting than his older sister.
It’s frightening to watch a sweet, happy child “slip away” from you. I’d always noticed that he wasn’t very interested in toys, but I chalked it up to his individual personality. But then odd sensory-seeking behaviors began to emerge at 18 months – walking on his toes all day, incessant spinning, putting tight elastic bands on his upper arms. His burgeoning communication skills turned into what felt like all-day grunting, screaming, flailing, and thrashing. He stopped responding to his name, too intent on repetitively flicking a light switch or hooking a latch to look at you.
As he got older, I would hear the usual comments from family and our pediatrician: “Boys take longer to develop.” “He’ll talk when he wants to.” “Oh, he’ll catch up.” But when I'd try to interact with him, I wouldn't sense any latent language skills lurking under the surface. No, it felt like speaking to a brick wall. No back-and-forth, no comprehension, nothing even closely resembling a conversation. Fortunately, he was always very emotionally attached to me and the rest of the immediate family, but that was about it.
At two and a half, my son entered an early invention program. It was a godsend. Bit by bit, he learned to point and (occasionally) make eye contact when asking for something. He would use (sometimes) join in during Singing Time, and even sit in one place for more than a few minutes. I’ll never forget the day when he held up a puzzle piece of a sheep, pretended to feed it, and said, “Sheep eat corn”. Most of his language up until that time had consisted of one-word requests for immediate wants, such as “bread” or “water”. Shortly before his third birthday, I heard him say his own name for the first time.
He continued in early intervention for a few more months, later transitioning to our school district’s “special needs” preschool program. Last fall, he gained a new teacher – a loving and committed woman named Miss B. He began to thrive in her classroom.
You’re probably wondering how knitting ties into this, if it does at all. Well, I began knitting after my son turned three, tempted for months by the beautiful things that my LiveJournal friends were making and displaying. I had learned to crochet as a kid – knitting couldn’t be much different, right? Just one more thing to hold? ;) And it was certainly more transportable than my sewing hobby. I started out with the requisite cheapie needles and Sugar ‘n Cream, and eventually discovered the fun of wool, alpaca, and silk. I’d been knitting for almost a year when, one November day, my son made a surprise request:
“Mama,” he said, “you want make Miss B purple scarf?”
I did a double-take. This was the child who used to stare through his grandparents when they’d try, again and again, to get his attention. The child who would circle and observe other playing children, but never show any interest in joining in. The child who used to have absolutely no concept of social gatherings. (When guests arrived for his second birthday party, he screamed at them, ran away, and hid in the basement for two hours. Getting him to join us and stay at the table for a family dinner had been a nightmare.)
But now he’d made a connection with Miss B, and he wanted her to have a purple scarf.
After checking in with Miss B to make sure that she actually liked the color purple, and didn’t have a drastic wool allergy, I got to work. It wasn’t a terribly special gift – a skein of plum Cascade 220, the Roman Stripe stitch, and a bit of fringe – but the end result was pretty. More fun than the knitting itself was watching my son monitor the scarf’s progress and enact, with dramatic “ooohs” and “aaahs”, how “boootiful” his teacher would say it was. Miss B later told me that on that last day before Christmas break, he wasn’t even off the school bus before he yelled out, “Miss B, I got purple scarf for you!!!”
Thinking over this, I wonder if it’s the “spectrum” part of his nature that makes knitting so fascinating to him. I once saw a video that illustrated the subtle differences in play between autistic and “neurotypical” young children. The normal child listened and took in the story while a book was read to her, looking and pointing at the pictures. The autistic child ripped the book away and turned it around and around intently, as if to say, “What is this thing, how is it put together, and how can I take it apart?” I used to even call my son “my little engineer”, given his fixation on motion, construction, and mechanics.
But really, all I know is that with that one request, my son moved beyond “handful” to “hand-knit appreciator”. And those are always great to have around. :)