Squinting for signals

Jeans and shirts with collars.

A silent ceiling fan.

An orange swim suit.

As the new year gets fully underway this week, I fixate on what I’m interpreting as this trio of signals from my son, sent as 2014 waned. Like many autistic children, he is rigid about his routines. Also like many of his peers, he has sensory issues, primarily auditory (in other words, he holds his hands over his ears a lot, and wears his hood up nearly always.)

Put the rigidity and the sensitivity together and what we’ve seen is 1) a wardrobe that consists almost entirely of sweatpants and T-shirts, 2) a habit of running his bedroom ceiling fan every single night, winter or summer, and 3) insistence on wearing the same blue bathing suit for at least the last three years.

So a few months ago, when he came out wearing jeans one morning, it was a jolt. They were a good inch short on him, since we haven’t bought any in so long. He’s not adept with snaps or buttons (a chicken-and-egg situation, no question) but he persevered and got them on. He’s since chosen jeans on at least two other days, as well as collared shirts, including one that had hung in his closet untouched for more than a year.

Then, on more than one night in the last two months, he’s elected to leave his fan off at bedtime. I don’t know whether he likes the white noise or the breeze, but deciding he could do without it was even more stunning than the jeans.

The topper is the swim suit. He’s worn the same blue suit from Target since around 2011. We swim twice a week. The elastic is entirely gone. Where it once hit below his knee, it’s now mid-thigh. Still, he rejected any suggestion he wear his other, orange suit until these last two months, when, like the jeans, he pulled it out of his drawer on his own.

A while back I read Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, in which he discusses how hard it is to discern true signals in the noisy environment of 21st century Western society. Silver’s a sports-turned-political-turned-back-to sports prognosticator, but I found his ideas fit my parenting experience, too. With one typical child and one not, the development path of each amounts to noise for the other. And despite the statistics that show autism prevalence rising, my husband and I still feel like isolated blips, the first in both our families to face this diagnosis in particular and a developmental disorder in general. We’ve met fellow parents through a support group and our own forays, online and in person, but partly due to the spectrum nature of autism, there isn’t a specific set of signals to watch for. I remember a conversation with my brother a few years ago in which he raised this rhetorical question: How do you even know what’s important to pay attention to?

On the face of it, it sounds ridiculous to say that jeans, a ceiling fan and an orange bathing suit are worth paying attention to. But layering them, one on top of the other, in a relatively short time frame, shows definite deviation from pattern, aka routine. Since routine is so important to my son, deviation, especially self-selected, seems like it must signal something.¬†Yet my own hopes and fears could be so much noise too, augmenting those isolated deviations into more than they’re worth, using the artificial device of the new year as an omen.

Signal or noise? I can only keep my antenna tuned. My new year’s resolution is to remain content and hopeful with either answer.

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