My article is a reflection on life with Oliver and the gifts of meaning and learning that Oliver brings to life.
I knew my son, Oliver, was somewhat outgrowing his diagnoses of autism when he put one of his star reward charts up on the fridge and said “Mum clean your room and you can have a star! – I wanna swap!”
Swapping is an intricate part of social interaction, communication and entertainment. Kids swap toys and cards, girls swap clothes, we have swap meets, reality shows to swap families, in movies and stories people swap identities to learn lessons, we swap recipes, swap ideas in think tanks and meetings and we swap beliefs for the sake of a good debate. Even though society prizes possessions and consumerism the culture of swapping allows us to speak heart to heart and say “I want connection”. The act of giving joy to another is a letting go of ego and attachment. It’s a part of who we are and what we are all capable of.
Part of an autism diagnoses is often the inability to process more than a couple of instructions at once- there is often a single minded focus at any one time. Yet Oli will swap words in sentences and, surprisingly, this way can memorise a long list of tasks. He say’s to me “I watch my milk and drink the video, I play the toast and butter the computer and (his favourite part!) I eat my teeth and brush the eggie!” We laugh uncontrollably.
New areas of science are finding that people with autism process information differently and hence learn in a different way. (3) Oliver, like a lot of young kids, often writes numbers and letters backwards. I drilled him for weeks to do it ‘properly’ with slow progress. One day I decided to ‘swap’ and copy his numbers – just to experience what it is like to do something which goes against your natural flow. It is very difficult and I made a lot of ‘mistakes’! When I finally wrote the numbers 1-10 backwards Oli said “Mummy got it right!” Appreciating his view somehow allowed him to learn and now he can write his letters and numbers the way he is expected to.
Other defining characteristics of an autism diagnoses are rigidity, repetitive behaviour, developmental delay and a resistance to change. Yet, Oliver seems to move between states of being that I can hardly comprehend. A door creaks in the wind steadily -open and close, open and close, open and close and Oli can concentrate for a long time, glancing at me and smiling with intense alertness enjoying the simple rhythm. What could be an everyday noise becomes a doorway to connection and mindfulness. Social interaction requires only two people.
When Oli was first diagnosed 4 years ago I was trapped in the cycle of diagnoses, grief and fear for the future. This cycle is natural and ongoing but it is only part of the story. Oliver has taught me that the shortest distance between any two people is acceptance. One of my favourite swapping games is when Oli say’s “I want to love mummy so…big!” and laughs hysterically. Then he will substitute all his favourite things to express the extent of his love - “I want to love mummy so…train set!” and “I want to love mummy so…computer!” and so on…
The essence of swapping is a conscious act of non-attachment. It prompts me to question whether this is a pathway to our true nature? Perhaps the ‘alarming’ increase in autism is a compass to guide us on our spiritual path?
We practice swapping so much in our culture acknowledging the transience of the physical world and possessions. What if we could take a leap of faith and swap our beliefs, judgements and habits as easily as a recipe or a dress? What limit would there be to the connecting of our hearts?