What car rides with Caleb taught me about autism and attention

Living with my son’s autism from day to day teaches me many things – provided I bother to pay attention. Provided I bother to learn.

Sadly, I don’t. Not enough anyway.

For me, arguably the greatest hurdle parenting him all these years, has been to try and come to terms with his fixations. How to get him not to focus on the same few things he’s only keen to talk about or work on each day.

Something that’s typical of many on the autism spectrum, based on research, and what I have observed in other kids like Caleb.

If I were only to think a little broader, such fixations are probably also typical of most of us too, autistic or otherwise.

Sadly, I don’t. Not enough anyway.

Which is why I often react in one of two ways when he starts babbling about his fixations: I zone out or I blow up. Neither of which are model parental behaviours, as you probably already know.

One classic example of his few fixations is transportation.

When going out for a drive, Caleb always insists that I turn on my phone’s Apple Map app, connect it to the car’s built-in automation system, and let Siri navigate us to our next destination.

And mind you, this is even when the destination is his school, a place we go to nearly everyday during term time!

He loves to key in the name of the destination, then tap the green “Go” that pops up for Siri to begin telling us how to get there. He gets a thrill looking at the arrows on the screen that point out the direction and which route is the quickest one. And most of all, he always wants to listen to some of his most favourite directional instructions from Siri such as “bear right”, or “slight right, then turn right”.

Heaven forbid that his daddy should choose to veer off course. My dear boy will be the first to tell me to steer the car back and follow the map instead. Talk about an ego booster for us men who thrive on the adrenalin and control we feel each time we get behind the steering wheel!

Who needs an AI to tell us where and how to go?! Right guys?

There was a time when Caleb would look nowhere else except the navigational screen on the car’s dashboard. It was as if what was happening there was real, while the rest of us (me, the car and the traffic conditions around us) weren’t!

So when I stop at a red light, he’ll ask me why I’m not moving as Siri was right then announcing that we were supposed to turn left. Or, he would ask me in exasperation why I wasn’t speeding up even though the traffic’s down to a crawl on the congested expressway: “Daddy, we’re supposed to keep going straight. Hurry!”

After a few helpless attempts to explain why (which typically brought on what could best be described as blank expressions), I gave up.

In recent times though, I’m glad that he’s started taking his eyes off the dashboard and started looking out the car window at the real world passing us by. “Good”, I thought to myself; at least it shows me that he’s ‘moved on’.

Yet somehow the same bewildering wide-eyed wonder and curiosity persists.

“Daddy, that’s my favourite coach do you know? That one over there.”

“Daddy, why is that road hump so small? Can you go over it again?”

“Daddy, are you going to follow the map or not? Why not?”

Some days I just feel like doing a jam brake in the middle of the road by way of shutting him up. Some days I would threaten to pull the plug on Siri and just drive with nothing but the windows down and the AC turned off. Just to return us back to a time when it was just the rubber on the roads and the wind in our faces.

Sort of like a throwback to simpler times; without all the modern trappings that have numbed our navigational instincts today.

And that’s when I come to the sudden realisation that all these car ride shenanigans from him are actually his way of building up his knowledge of the world around him. These navigational fixations build up his spatial skills and awareness. Very important when you think about it, should he (and I) ever get lost on the roads.

For there’s no denying that he’s so in tune with our country’s road systems now that, each time we casually ask him how to get from point A to B, our friend can actually give us directions that are nearly spot-on.

Not bad for a nine-year old.

And so the next time we go for a car ride, I will remember not to zone out or blow up.

Instead, I will remember to pay more attention and learn how his autistic fixations can teach us both about space, time and relational networks.

And in so doing, cement the bond between father and son, as we let Siri direct our trips down each concrete road of our unfinished journey with autism, parenting and life.


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