The other day when my son and I came home with groceries, I had him help me bring them into the kitchen, and then turned my back to him for a moment.
I turned back around to find him rustling through the bags, not on the usual search for snacks, but to my surprise, to put the food away. I decided to see how much he knew about where things went. He took everything out one-by-one, and methodically and precisely put all the food items in the correct cupboards and in the refrigerator. I had never seen him do that before.
This independence in doing other tasks, such as taking out the garbage, is his new obsession. At home, Cash'an, 9, will empty plates and look for items to fill up the bag. At his grandma's house, he even tried to stuff his blanket and pillow in her garbage one day with the goal taking her garbage bag to the dumpster.
So one day at home, I let him make the trek solo to the outside trash dumpster, which is located two parking lots over from my apartment unit. Cash'an apparently had paid attention to our shortcut walking path, and with a garbage bag almost as big as his body, he the eagerly took his walk. I, of course, moved very quickly in my car to follow him and meet him on the other side near the dumpster. I was so proud of my boy.
It is the same pride I feel when I see him dress himself for school after putting his bed clothes in the hamper, then try to pack his lunchbox and put his backpack on to wait for the school van.
Lack of language, stolen by autism, does not mean a lack of cognitive ability. Children with autism learn functions step-by-step, usually taught from a backward chain of events, meaning that they are shown the end result and every tiny step in between. The common method of teaching is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which incorporates a reward system, such as a food or game the child likes. It is then gradually and systematically pulled back once the child has learned a task. For Cash'an, completion is often his reward. The challenge is when the need for completion becomes obsessive – like having to make sure all the cupboards are closed, or all clothes, clean or dirty, are placed in the hamper.
I always say parents should pick and choose their battles with this neurological order. If a child with autism can learn how to independently complete life skills like taking out the trash, putting away groceries, doing the laundry or loading a dishwasher, then let him close a few cupboard doors. My son is showing me that he can do a lot of things if just given a chance. Every parent wants to know their child can be independent one day, or at least understand and master the life skills they will need to care for themselves.
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