Everything that can be said about autism can also not be said: as the maxim goes, when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Dylan certainly contradicts a few stereotypes: he appears to empathise with others; he can be sociable; and he enjoys variety. Sometimes, however, Dylan follows the text book.
I’ve had to reach for the autism manual more than once while Dylan has been transitioning to residential care. Today, for example, I received a photo of Dylan enjoying himself on a trip. As I’ve mentioned previously, I love receiving these: photos reassure me that Dylan is happy and help me to feel involved in his life. I smiled as I opened the email: just the sort of outing Dylan loves, I thought to myself. I closed the email and continued working.
After a while, however, I started to feel unsettled. I wasn’t sure what it was but something about Dylan hadn’t seemed quite right. I opened the email again and clicked on the photos. What was it? As I enlarged one of the images I realised: Dylan wasn’t wearing a coat. Although it is November, and the air temperature is plummeting with the forecast of first snow, Dylan was dressed only in a hoodie. I am aware that one of the issues I tend to fuss about is Dylan’s clothes so I’m trying not to over-react to inconsequential differences in practice. The thought of Dylan not being warm enough, however, triggered my maternal concern.
Dylan, I was told in answer to my query, had had a coat with him but didn’t want to wear it. I remembered that Dylan hadn’t had a coat on either when I collected him on Wednesday evening; I’d decided that it didn’t matter as we wouldn’t be outdoors, but I noticed it. Then I recalled that at the weekend when I collected Dylan he had had two coats on, one on top of the other. There seemed to be a coat problem developing. But it surely couldn’t, I reflected, be about the coats: Dylan has a choice of three, all of which he has always seemed happy enough to wear. The other really strange thing, I thought to myself, is that I have the opposite problem with Dylan: when he is with me he is reluctant to go out without a coat.
‘Er-jay, er-jay’ (meaning t-shirt) Dylan says to me, pulling at my clothes, when I go outside without a coat in the summer. I am constantly reassuring Dylan that it is alright to go out without a coat when it is sunny. Sometimes when we have gone out without coats Dylan has become so anxious that we have had to return for them. And it is very difficult to persuade Dylan to take his coat off while travelling in the car; when I manage to, he leaps out as soon as we arrive and gets his coat out of the car boot.
The fact that Dylan has always been particular about coat-wearing might suggest that it is a particular habit, i.e. that it is context-dependent. Perhaps Dylan will have to learn about wearing a coat in his residential setting just as he had to learn about wearing a coat at home? This would be one way of making sense of Dylan’s refusal to wear a coat. Certainly it would fit the text book explanations: it can be difficult, apparently, for children and adults with autism to generalise a behaviour from one context to another. I have sometimes considered this lack of generalisation an opportunity; relearning something in a new context offers me a chance to alter a routine or to develop Dylan’s practice in some way. The positive aspect of this, I suppose, might be that Dylan re-learns the habit of wearing a coat but that he assumes it less rigidly than before.