Autism is an interesting animal. Early on, it's signs and symptoms are pretty clear. Usually, you have a distressed toddler that can't figure out how to communicate. At all. Not only can they not talk, they don't know how to point, gesture, drag their parents to the desired object. Communication is a mystery to them. So, instead, they just stand there and have a "meltdown". It's a scary, embarrassing and very difficult time for the parents and the child. There is a great divide that exists between you and your child. Your little toddler spends all their time retreating within and the parents spend every ounce of energy pulling them out.
I think of my son's years between 1 and 5 - and it's all a blurry fog of tears & frustration combined with triumphs & mini-successes that we celebrated like he graduated Harvard. When I meet a parent in the throws of toddlerhood autism, my heart aches for them. Because it is a very hard time. But I always say to them - with absolute confidence - it DOES get better. Time, maturity, age, developmental progress, education... is the friend of autism.
It is around age 5 or 6 that autism becomes much more covert. As the child with autism gets older, he learns to "manage" his autism. He learns that some of his crazy behaviors, desires, and obsessions are more appropriately enjoyed in the privacy of home. He also learns that other kids will make fun of him if he brings his brand of crazy to the table. (No disrespect.... because God knows I am in love with the autistic mind and it's amazing capabilities.... but some of the behaviors and compulsions are indeed crazy. If you don't believe me, come and stay at our house for the weekend).
And so begin the years when autism mainly blooms at home. And you start hearing people say "I would never even know he had autism". And that's ok with me. I don't want my son to be defined by 6 letters. He is many things, and autistic is just one of those things.
An interesting and brilliant coping mechanism kids with autism have is that when the going gets tough, they assume the words and personalities of fictional characters. When my son was little, he could insert a line from any TV show or movie into a conversation so seamlessly that 90% of the time the listener didn't detect the plagiarism. Awesome, right?
Older kids & even adults with autism still rely on this method to cope. However, it's on the down low. For instance, today my son was having a rough morning. So, he went to school as Chris Kratt from the TV show "Wild Kratts". Now... he didn't wear a Halloween costume or anything. He wore regular jeans and a T-shirt. However, this mom knows that his choice of jacket (orange) and tennis shoes (black) was critical to the "look" of Chris Kratt. He will spend the day pretending he is Kratt especially when the going gets tough (recess). He will have a whole show going on his head. He will draw diagrams during art class that Kratt needs to accomplish his mission. He will eat his lunch and picture himself in the jungle tree eating bugs and leaves.
He is not delusional, he knows he is imagining and pretending. But it's more than "fun" for him, more than a game. It is the way he socially navigates the very difficult-to-navigate first grade. When he is Kratt, "John" is off the hook for a few moments. Ahhh bliss.....
So, lots of times, you may see an autistic person muttering to themselves, deep in thought, seemingly checked out. They aren't insane... they are brilliantly, amazingly COPING.
It's actually quite something.