I think it’s pretty clear that there are some significant challenges involved in raising special needs children, and sometimes they can be heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. But, not always. There are some really unique, wonderful things about people on the autism spectrum. One of those things for my son, Gray, is his awesome memory.
Most kids on the autism spectrum have some very focused, specific interests. What these interests are varies greatly from one child to another, and sometimes it varies with the child. Gray usually has about 2 different intense interests at one time, sometimes they are mainstream things like movies or video games, and sometimes they are a little more unique. When he was 5 years old, he became obsessed with streets, street names and street signs.
He could spend hours pouring over Google maps, navigating his way around our community. We live in Southern California, so there is no shortage of streets and freeways. It can be downright overwhelming. But Gray mastered them. Eventually, Brad put a quick-link to the maps for our community on our desktop computer so that Gray could get directly on when he had screen time available. And he used every available moment to memorize the streets in our town, and the 5 towns surrounding us.
It was honestly mind-boggling. At 5, Gray knew every street in our area and where they intersected. If I was stuck in traffic, I would ask him what I should do to get to our destination on alternate streets, and THE KID COULD NAVIGATE ME THERE!
I’m not going to lie: I was pretty smug and extremely proud of my kid! Sure, he could get stuck in a verbal loop that would leave you tearing your hair out, he wouldn’t set foot in a place that disagreed with him and he named his new teddy bear “North Avenue,” but my boy was a living map. I called him my personal GPS, and I was pretty thrilled with this new skill. Brad and I grew to rely on Gray’s advice when we were driving around. Don’t judge, I promise you would have done the exact same thing. The kid was both accurate and amazing. Until.
One day, we were navigating our way home, and Gray said, “Dad, if you take a right here, it’s a shortcut to get home.” Brad didn’t even hesitate, he made a right and proceeded down the street until we hit a dead end. A dead end! “Gray, this isn’t a shortcut. This is a dead end!” And that little boy was giggling with a look of complete joy and glee. “I know,” he chortled, “I saw it on the map and I’ve always wanted to see it in person. And now I have!”
So, obviously, Brad and I couldn’t help laughing, too. It really was funny, especially when you factor in the ridiculousness of taking a 5 year old’s driving directions. But it wasn’t so funny when it happened again, and again. Our GPS was broken.
He still knew exactly where he was going, but we couldn’t trust him anymore. We had to stop taking his advice, especially when we were in a hurry. If we had time, we’d indulge his rabbit trails, but it became less and less frequent.
And eventually, his interests shifted to something else and he stopped learning maps, and gradually he has forgotten all those roads and routes. Every once in a while, when traffic’s bad I’ll ask his advice, and he tells me, “I don’t know.” Over the years, there have been a lot of different interests, but none quite so useful as the Google map obsession. I’ll never forget that gleeful giggle when he got us to drive down a dead end street or got us lost for fun. At the time, it was a little frustrating, but I miss my GPS.