Our 6-year old son, Jack, has made the leap from memorizing people’s birthdays to collecting information about the cars people drive. Now, instead of asking when someone’s birthday is, he points his finger in their face and barks “What kind of car do you drive?” His query resembles the credit card commercial where the large ogres demand “What’s in your wallet?”
What began in early spring as a cute preoccupation has exploded into a full-fledged obsession.
Driving Jack around all summer was like riding with a member of the census bureau. I’ve learned that Hondas and Toyotas are among the most popular vehicles in New Hampshire, with Acuras a distant third. Not to mention all of the models! This could keep Jack busy for decades. Our earnest, literal Jack, for whom memorizing the make, model, shape, size, color, and fuel source isn’t enough; he also wants to know what each car name means. Have you ever considered what a Prius is? Or how to explain the term Legacy to a 6-year old?
I’m learning a lot about people with Jack’s new interest. Responses to his question vary, but it often makes people uncomfortable to have a 6-year old glare at them and demand to know the make and model of their vehicle. Many squirm. Some snicker and look away while they pretend they didn’t hear him. Others make up cute names; “Why, my car? Oh, we call our car Shadow! Because it’s black!”
Since social cues are difficult for Jack to decipher, he doesn’t notice how his unblinking stare and pointed finger make his unsuspecting victim anxious. He wants answers and will go to great lengths to hear the car data.
If I think it’s getting out of hand I’ll step in to redirect Jack, and mouth “Autism” while I ruffle his soft brown crew cut with my fingers. But sometimes I sit back and watch them stammer. It’s like being on the sidelines observing a bizarre social experiment unfold. Most curious to me are the people who just can’t divulge this information – it baffles me every time. It’s a car, and he’s six. If you’re reluctant to admit you drive the latest in the Mercedes series, than make something up. Pretend you drive a dented grey Toyota Sienna where the goldfish crackers outnumber the children inside so we can all get on with our lives.
It’s very revealing, this car business. How did our college-age server at Olive Garden come to drive a Lexus? (“My mother’s car” she mumbled out of the corner of her mouth with a self-conscious shrug.) Or how about the CEO of a major company in the area tooling around in a Neon? Cars seem to say a lot about their drivers.
However, the person most revealed with the car obsession is Jack himself. He’s finally cracking the venetian blinds into his fascinating brain and letting us take a peek. That can be the beauty of autism – it gives all of us a rare glimpse inside a mind as intricate and matchless as a snowflake.
I was getting frustrated when he would ask family and friends the same question about their car every time he saw them, even though he knew it. Honestly, I thought to myself, couldn’t he at least demonstrate one of his fascinating skills and blow people away with his car knowledge, the way he can spit people’s birthdays back to them? As a parent, is it so wrong to want to revel in the disbelief and awe for one teeny-tiny nanosecond? Why, maybe he is a genius! Maybe memorizing every Volvo, Nissan, and Cadillac will have a big payoff for Jack one day, maybe he’ll be the Temple Grandin of the auto industry and his movie will win an Emmy and he’ll stand up and ask the cameras to point to me and I’ll be wearing a couture gown that was designed just for me and hides the fact that I’ve birthed five children…..
Whoops, got off track there. Believe it or not, something even better than that scenario unfolded.
About halfway through the summer we realized Jack’s obsession is more than simply collecting information to categorize and store in his complicated brain. It provides him with the chance to interact with people – often strangers – about a subject he likes. “What kind of car do you drive” is the “Hello how are you, my name is Jack” of his world. It bridges a social gap that might otherwise seem as wide to him as the English Channel.
Watching our socially limited son create ways to make himself comfortable talking to people is a beautiful thing. Even more beautiful is watching as he gradually learns to turn their answers into a conversation; “Oh! A Toyota! I like Toyotas too! What color is yours?” On more than one occasion I’ve had to look away while my eyes filled with tears and my heart leaped with joy. Behavior we thought of as sometimes annoying, occasionally funny, and at best peculiar is something else entirely.
As is so often the case with Jack and autism, it’s a learning curve for us as much as for him. We can’t always take his quirkiness at face value – we have to look inside, around, and beyond his mysterious behavior to see what drives it.
(No car pun intended.)
Carrie Cariello lives in New Hampshire with her husband and five children.