I have 267 notes currently on my iPhone, including an extensive amount of memos, lists, and observations. There’s random lines of poetry I’m tinkering around with, story ideas, and J notes. Lots of J notes. Notes to track J’s phobias, notes of ideas as to how to approach J’s phobias, new approaches to try with J, my observations of J.
This week’s iPhone notes included this little tidbit of new J behavior. We’ve been on vacation for the last week and a half, and we’ve seen the full gamut of behaviors. This one happened at my parent’s house while the kids were trapped inside for most of the time because of the hot, humid Kansas weather. This one is my absolute favorite note in my phone right now:
It’s funny when the kids are out of their element. J and W are playing this game where I hear someone announce “bing!” and then laughing and giggling ensues downstairs. I don’t know what it’s about.
There’s also this kennel game, where W teases J and J tells W she needs to go to the kennel, the k-e-n-n-e-l and they run and chase and wrestle again. There’s tug o war with an old quilt mom made years ago. Every few minutes I hear J say, “W, what color are you?” And they go back to screaming and chasing and giggling. “What color are you?” Is code for “how are you doing?” It’s sweet because he can’t read if he’s being too rough so he checks in just in case.
J has always struggled with reading emotion and facial expressions. It’s really frustrating and embarrassing sometimes. In preschool we practiced with face flashcards, dozens of faces young and old, faces of different colors, faces with different emotions.
After a while, J got really good at interpreting the emotions of those cards—but only those cards. If he saw the curly haired woman with glasses on the card smiling, he knew that meant “happy.” If we saw a different curly haired woman with glasses at the store smiling, he had no idea what she was feeling. It was as if he couldn’t translate what he memorized on the cards with real life people.
Interpreting emotions in movies was hard too. J was always laughing or cheering at the wrong times. It’s funny when the protagonist makes a mean joke about the antagonist, but it’s not funny when an antagonist makes a mean joke about a protagonist. It’s okay if the protagonist hurts the antagonist in a movie because that’s self-defense or good conquering evil. It’s not okay if the antagonist hurts the protagonist in the movie because that’s aggression or evil conquering good. I didn’t realize how many double standards we have for behavior and how complicated it is to sort through all of those nuances until I had J.
And then there was the eye contact. J never had eye contact issues with Steve or me, so it took me a long time to figure out that J didn’t make eye contact with other people. For some reason faces are stressful for J. I noticed the stress first with the emotion flash cards. He would close his eyes tight and turn away, cry or try to tear or hide the cards before he got used to him. It wasn’t until a few years ago that J was okay with the deluge of photo Christmas cards we got every year. I’d find cards turned over and slipped under the fridge or the stack of mail on the counter, even hidden under the couch in the next room. Emotional faces can be overwhelming for J. Because we show a lot of our emotions through our faces, especially through our eyes, it’s really hard for J to understand what other people are feeling sometimes and it makes him sort of nervous.
That’s why, when I heard J say this week, “W, what color are you?” that was huge. Really huge. When J can’t talk about his emotions (especially if he’s worked up, hyper, or emotional himself) we talk colors. It’s a strategy J learned in speech. Green is just right. Yellow is a little “too much” territory. Red is “definitely too much” territory. Even though he knows W and can read her emotions really well since he’s known her for almost 12 years, and has never had a problem with eye contact with her, he just created his own “check.” A “check” he can use with anyone at any time. W knows this code, and could say back to him, in those moments of horse play, “I’m good, I’m green.”
What a brilliant idea J: “if you’re not sure how people are feeling, just ask, especially if emotions are high and things get confusing.”
Pretty good strategy, even for us who aren’t on the spectrum 😉