Autism And The Double: Dylan’s duplicates

I developed an interest in ‘the double’ years before Dylan was born. As well as enjoying double narratives in literature and mythology I was fascinated by twins. For a while I thought I had a twin pregnancy while I was carrying Dylan and my husband and I used to refer to our daughter as ‘the twins’ (in utero and out) although we knew from a scan that she was a singleton.

imagesD16BU1IXSoon after my children were born I came across a study of handedness and pregnancy; left-handed people, the study proposed, could be ‘surviving twins’. According to this theory a significant number of pregnancies begin as multiple pregnancies but in the early weeks, undetected by us, one of the embryos fails. The impact on the surviving twin of hormone levels in the womb, the research suggests, manifests itself through handedness. Both my children are left-handed although neither I nor their fathers are, and I have sometimes wondered to myself whether they are surviving twins.

I’m not aware of any research looking specifically at handedness in autism but it would be interesting to know if the incidence of left-handedness in the autistic population is higher than in the general population (I’ve mused on this issue previously in relation to visual and linguistic processing here).  If it were the case then I can imagine that ‘surviving twin syndrome’ could be an interesting line of enquiry as part of research into the biochemistry of autistic neurology.

Doing The Two’s

I’ve been thinking about the double recently while pondering one of Dylan’s behaviours which I call ‘Doing the Two’s’.  This happened most recently last weekend when I took Dylan to a music shop to choose a new CD.  I usually buy music, films and books for Dylan online because I know what is likely to happen if I give him a choice in a shop – and, indeed this is what happened on Saturday.

double sting 002Dylan loves Sting’s Fields of Gold but, as you can see, he already has a copy. He also has the album on his i-pad so this is actually his third copy of the CD. The shop I took Dylan to is a music-lover’s paradise with rows and rows of stock but Dylan somehow managed to locate the Sting CD and all my attempts to divert with other suggestions failed. I wouldn’t always give in to Dylan’s desire to buy a duplicate of something but on this particular day, for a variety of reasons, I did.

I have been having battles with Dylan about NOT buying duplicates for a very long time.  I have a memory of Dylan as a toddler clutching a video of Fireman Sam at a church bazaar while I tried to persuade him to put it back because he already had it. Although it must have been priced at less than 25p I didn’t see the point in buying Dylan something he already had and was prepared to tough this one out with him for the principle. I carried Dylan screaming from the church hall, telling myself the battle would be worthwhile as Dylan would learn that he couldn’t buy the same thing twice.

Except he didn’t. There have been  many incidents since.  In shops, at charity stalls and in libraries, for nearly 20 years, I have been saying:  No Dylan put it back: we’re not doing the two’s.  I have repeated my explanation to shop keepers and stall holders repeatedly:  Dylan doesn’t understand – he picks up objects because he recognises them – he has one of those already. No we don’t want to buy it thank you very much.

Except that Dylan did. Only recently have I realised just how passionately Dylan wanted to buy all the duplicate items I have refused him over the years.

Dylan’s Duplicates

In the new year, while Dylan was in overnight respite and I was having work done on his bedroom window frames, I took the opportunity to spring clean the room. Dylan is tidy; he keeps his bedroom neat and all his books, DVDs and Videos are in a particular order on his shelves. He knows where everything is. If I move something, or suggest a change in how his things are arranged, Dylan will usually move them straight back. Occasionally he will accept a minor suggestion, however, and he seems to like it when I do a major reorganisation of his room. As is common with autism, it’s the slight alterations to order that can be difficult for Dylan rather than the big changes. On this particular day I moved the bed from one wall to another, involving a switch with some book shelves.  While cleaning up I decided to look through the books to see if there were any I could persuade Dylan to take to the charity shop. I was shocked by what I discovered.

shutteres 015As you can see, Dylan has been Doing the Two’s pretty effectively (and sometimes Doing the Three’s).  I was surprised that Dylan had managed to get duplicate copies of books but even more shocked by the systematic nature of these acquisitions. As  I spread them out on his carpet I realised that there was a pattern to his acquisition: they were Disney books, primarily, and they were from particular book series’. One of the reasons I hadn’t noticed the duplicates before is that Dylan doesn’t keep them together but rather has a system for spreading them across his shelves. This isn’t by publisher (i.e. series type) or title (i.e. all Pinocchio’s together)  but seems to be by some other classification system which Dylan has developed. The fact that there was an organising principle to Dylan’s Doing the Two’s turned it from simple acquisition to collection.  My son, I realised, was a book collector.

shutteres 012As I sat flabbergasted on his floor another realisation hit me.  I hadn’t bought these books for him; in fact I had been the one thwarting Dylan’s book collecting activity. So where had he got these books from?  I leafed through the books. They weren’t library books.  Some of them looked worryingly like brand new copies. Others were torn and raggedy and written in. I found a girl’s name inscribed in one of them:  This book belongs to Emily. Oh dear. With rising suspicion I remembered how, a couple of nights before, Dylan had arrived home from his new Day Centre and scuttled straight upstairs with his pack on his back, instead of leaving it in the room for me to read his home-school liaison book. Could my son be a book thief?

shutteres 009I’m pretty sure that Dylan must have been collecting books either from his Day Centre or from his Respite provider, both of which have small libraries. Perhaps some of the books were taken from school before he left last summer. I’ve no idea how long the collecting might have been going on.  I’m fairly certain Dylan hasn’t been taking books from shops – not while in my care anyway. But Dylan is like lightening; if there’s something motivates him, Dylan has thought about, planned and executed it before you can say Peter Pan.

Why (and Why Again)?

Since my discovery I’ve been pondering the possible reasons for wanting duplicate copies of an object. I started by asking myself what I had duplicates of. I came up with this list:

  • I buy multiple copies of Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica because I love it and like to give it to women friends
  • I have twice mistakenly bought duplicate copies of a book I already had
  • I have multiple copies of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar but in a range of different editions
  • I have bought a spare copy of my favourite version of Roget’s Thesaurus as it is out of print and difficult to source
  • I had to re-buy Oasis’ What’s the Story as mine got stuck in my car stereo for a while

Like my son’s, my duplicates seem to involve books. If I look at my motivation for acquiring second copies of something, with the exception of the third item in the list (i.e. error), it seems to be love – though often love is coupled with a fear that the thing I love may be broken or lost.

That reminds me of a dolphin beanie baby called Echo which my daughter loved best of all her collection. One day Echo was lost. My daughter was heart-broken. We told her Echo would turn up again – he would be somewhere. But he didn’t and my daughter continued to be miserable. One day my husband and I agreed that we would buy another Echo. We placed it with my daughter’s toys for her to find the next day. I think my daughter was a bit suspicious; Echo looked unusually clean. But she was satisfied until one day, playing with Dylan’s garage, the original dolphin was discovered in the car wash.  I can’t remember quite what white lie we created but whatever it was seemed to satisfy and the dolphins became firm favourites: Echo 1 and Echo 2.

Might Dylan, perhaps, collect duplicate copies of his favourite books through fear of loss?  Or does he collect duplicates of his favourite books in the way I obsessively collect Plath’s Bell Jar in different jackets? Certainly, Dylan’s collecting across series’ seems to suggest an interest in variety as well as duplication. Many years after she had stopped playing with Echo 1 and Echo 2 my daughter pointed out to me (when I was flirting with the idea of an asymmetric haircut) that it is symmetry which underpins beauty; our aesthetic sensibility finds balance pleasing. Such structures also link mathematics and music, two fields which can attract autistic people.

What if Dylan’s book collection represents an interest in symmetry and pattern? If so, could that interest extend beyond a book collection  to other doublings? Might it explain the way Dylan walks twice around a tree?  Could Doing the Two’s be about imposing symmetry on a life? Whether the explanation is to be found in fear of loss, love of order, a ghost twin or something else, if Doing the Two’s doubles Dylan’s  happiness I can accept two Stings.

double sting 001

6 thoughts on “Autism And The Double: Dylan’s duplicates

  1. Liz, I remember that both my son and daughter, when we introduced them to the library at about the age of 2 1/2 to 3, brought home copies of books which we already had at home. I guess it was a process of discovery for them – that there could be multiple copies of something they liked, and I think that feeling gave them pleasure. Also discovering that something might be largely the same but also different. There would be a different pattern of wear, stains and damage on the library books… and I think all those sensory variations are interesting and important to a little child.
    I also remember working with William Yule in the 1979 on a research project on behaviour in the classroom and he taught us that what gives a behaviour the characteristic of autism is not the actual behaviour itself, but, for example, an unusual rate of repetition, inappropriate context, unusual intensity, etc.
    Walking around a tree twice seems to be a nice way to sense the ‘beingness’ of the tree.
    I very much enjoy reading your reflections, made in what I guess might sometimes be a rather stressful situation for you.


    • Hi Tom – very interesting. You don’t say whether your children are autistic but I’m guessing not – in which case the age you say they were when doing this is not dissimilar to Dylan’s current developmental age. I often have to remind myself that what I am seeing is an ordinary developmental milestone, just many, many years ‘late’ (this is particularly the case with language but other things too). And I think you’re so right about the issue of ‘same but different’. I notice that Dylan has torn the front cover off one of the doubles he has collected (Dinosaurs) so that it matches the one he already owned. He is aware, I think, of the different patterns of wear and tear. Absolutely agree with you about the ‘beingness’ of tree – lovely expression. I love the way Dylan apprehends the world. Thanks for reading my posts – and for realising that I have to juggle a bit to make them. Some weeks are easier than others 🙂


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