Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Autism Diaries XI: furthering backfirement

Last night, for the first time in his life, J laughed himself to tears.

This milestone occurred after I got so fed up with J's attempts to raise the temperature in our kitchen that I decided to reveal to him how we'd been deceiving him, for years, about the kitchen ceiling fan.

The back story: years ago, tired of him constantly turning the fan on fast, we'd arranged for his aunt to send him an email message, ostensibly from the "fan company," warning owners that the fans would break down if turned on when the temperature was too low. To maintain proper fan health, the email went on, owners shouldn't turn on their fans until the surrounding temperature reached 78 degrees, and shouldn't turn them on fast below 85 degrees.

Ranking fan longevity over fan-on-fast, and not yet email-savvy enough to recognize email fraud (let alone perpetrate it himself), J obediently monitored the kitchen thermostat and kept the fan speed--or lack thereof--within proper parameters. And he continued to do so for years.

But that didn't stop him from using all means necessary to raise the kitchen temperature as high as possible. In summer, this has meant nightly struggles over the kitchen windows, which J is constantly conniving to open in the heat of the day and to close in the cool of the evening. Finally yesterday, amid this summer's first heat wave, I'd had enough.

He took the news well. In fact, already familiar with the term "backfire," he reveled in all the ways our attempts to save energy and keep the kitchen comfortable had done just this--to the point of laughing himself to tears. His only consternation came when I pointed out that he'd laughed himself to tears, whereupon I quickly explained that tears don't always mean unhappiness, but sometimes the exact opposite (for what better feeling in the universe is there than side-splitting mirth?).

To allow him to further savor the moment, I encouraged him to call up his impostering aunt and tell her what he'd learned. Only then did I hear the full litany of strategies he'd used to raise the kitchen temperature: not just opening and closing windows, making up excuses to cook things in the oven rather than the microwave, and opening the oven door whenever the oven was on and we weren't looking, but also turning up the thermostat, setting the dishwasher to "extra-heated dry," and turning on the exhaust fan to draw in heat.

In pretending to be the fan company his aunt, he informed her, had "furthered backfirement."

In this moment of parenting defeat, I, too revel. I revel not just in my son's mirth, but in three things that many autism experts say that children with autism can't do: understand, appreciate, and participate in pretense; understand metaphor (this was no literal backfiring); and manipulate language creatively, grammatically, and pragmatically appropriately--yielding a playful bureaucratese entirely of his own making.