By the Numbers

C-scootering@2x Today C led me around the neighborhood on his scooter. Along the way, he counted cracks in the sidewalk, calling them out quietly to himself. "75. 76. 77." When I snapped the photo above, we were in the 400 range, and when we got home, he yelped with joy, "One thousand one hundred and fifty-nine cracks!"


C loves numbers and anything to do with numbers. Yesterday in Target, seeing a large Dr. Seuss book, he said, "How many pages?" "345," I said. "I want it!" With such enthusiasm, how could I resist? In the checkout line, he told me cheerily that this book had more pages than any of his other books.

Of course it would be nice if he wanted the book because of the story, but numbers are his way into things. Far from being a dead end, numbers are often just the starting point.

For example, he has a book filled with over 200 illustrations of birds. He spends hours poring over the book, and if you say any number, he can tell you the name of the bird. If you tell him the name of any bird, he can tell you the number. Show him just the illustration, and he can tell you the name and the number. But it doesn't end there: recently his babysitter took him to the zoo, and he was thrilled to see some of the actual living, breathing birds. He had made the connection.


Sometimes they tell you that you should be careful about letting children with autism "stim out" or "obsess" over things like numbers, systems, maps, etc., and I guess sometimes they're right. But not always. Sometimes, just like with any child, it's not so much an obsession as a passion. And aren't we all told to follow our passion?


Duality C is a boy who, at four, can read full sentences, complex words, and short books; if it's 6:51, he can tell you how many minutes until it's 6:58; he's memorized nearly every street in our neighborhood and can represent them with toy train tracks; he knows all the stops on the Q train from here to Brighton Beach; he knows the color of every single NYC subway line; if you ask him what number J is, he'll say "ten" without hesitation, because that's where J falls in the sequence of letters in the alphabet.

But C is also a boy who cannot take a basic hearing test: the doctor prompts and prods, trying to get him to answer the simplest question ("Do you hear a beep now, C?") but C just giggles and wriggles, or spaces out entirely.* And this is just one example of the myriad tasks that fall into the category of Basic Life Skills that completely elude our boy.

It's this duality, more than anything else, that epitomizes the challenge C faces in life. How can someone so bright in so many ways get by if he cannot learn to master the simplest social interactions and situations? Life independence isn't a matter of having a photographic memory or advanced math, spelling, and geography skills, but of navigating a complex web of human relationships.

For my part, I've mostly given up on trying to describe C's autism using signs and symptoms because, taken out of context, they don't really provide an accurate picture. No, I think the example above does it best: C is a boy who can do some simply amazing things, but utterly struggle with things a child half his age can do without the slightest thought.

Can a child learn to master the basic life skills that seem to be in the realm of instinct alone? I don't know, but I certainly hope so.


* After the test, my wife asked C how many beeps he heard during the hearing test. "Fifteen," he replied without the slightest hesitation. "Wow," said the doctor, "that's exactly how many there were!" As usual, C can do it, but he has to do it his own way.

Considering Cognition

Psych Eval

Today was a good day.

I took C to an evaluation with a psychologist, the objective of which was to test his cognitive abilities. The good doctor was very surprised — and a bit disappointed — that up to this point, no one had tested C's intelligence or cognitive skills with traditional tools like the Stanford-Binet IQ test. He was concerned we were only getting a "partial picture" of our son.

We've always known that C has good to very good cognitivie abilities. He's a fast learner; he has a great memory; and despite being just three, he's started sight-reading, counting to 100, and spontaneously sounding out words, to name just a few examples. While we won't know the results for a few weeks, it seemed like C was acing almost every question; we had to really work to get him to focus, but when he did, even the doctor was impressed.*

Yes, the psychologist noted the very troublesome areas — focus, social reciprocity, repetitive / stimmy behavior, etc.

However, he believes that because of C's cognitive abilities, he might very well be able to learn to compensate for these deficits to some degree, or at least learn behaviors that help offset the deficits. In other words, he was extremely positive about our son's future.

I'll say it again: today was a good day.

* It is only fair to note that C has made huge strides in his abilities to focus and perform exercises over the past year due, in no small part, to the incredible efforts of the therapists who work with him daily.

Sight Reading

Yesterday we witnessed something amazing: C is able to sight-read some words, and then match them to images. (This is the first time C has done this exercise with his ABA therapist; ironically, the point of the exercise was to help him with fine motor skill such as holding paper, not reading.) These are words C likes to spell, so he's already familiar with them. Nonetheless, he's seeing the words out of context and attaching meaning to them. In other words, pre-reading.

I know that when I tell people about this, some of them will think, "Well, there's more proof he's smart and maybe just a little unusual." It can be frustrating having to constantly explain that, yes, my son has some abilities that are beyond his 3.25 years of age, but in other areas he has severe deficits. People tend to assume average to better-than-average cognitive abilities mean there are no serious problems.

Nonetheless, I am thrilled with this development: it is heartening to know that despite the deficits, he has a great brain hard at work.