Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Candle Snuffer

Remember toys like these?   

Push this, twist that – and watch what happens.   Many individuals with autism are highly interested in cause and effect.   Matthew never met a light switch that he didn’t try or a toilet he didn’t have to flush - just for the pure enjoyment of observing the cause and effect. 

Matthew is a cause and effect junkie.   He has always loved pushing buttons to “see what will happen”.  His favorite is watching lights go on and off.  At Christmas time, we have our outside lights on a timer.  Matthew has learned how to adjust the timer so he knows exactly when the lights will go on (4:13pm).  He eagerly awaits each afternoon in December, and at 4:13, the squeals of delight sound as if it’s the first time he’s ever observed such an exciting event.   I love observing his joy.

Although the clapping in this photo is not in reaction to watching our Christmas lights go on, this image does accurately show the joy M feels when he watches them light up at 4:13.
At church, when he was a bit younger, Matthew loved watching the alter servers snuff out the candles at the end of the service.  (Lights going out – cause and effect!)  Our pastor recognized his interest and asked if Matthew would like to become an acolyte, in other words, would Matthew like to learn to snuff out the candles at the end of the service?  YES! 

So, Matthew has become an acolyte.  His name is at the end of the weekly church
program.  He's official.  At the end of the service, he takes the snuffer, and extinguishes 8 candles on the altar.  The first few times, as we watched, I tightly squeezed Greg’s hand in anticipation of Matty toppling one of the candles over and setting fire to the church.  But the ministers who guide him always patiently allow him to be as independent as possible and the fire department has not (yet) been involved.  

To most people, the word, extinguish, means to put out a flame.  To the autism parent community, extinguish also means choosing a challenging behavior, and using strategies to decrease the behavior.  For some individuals with autism, it’s extinguishing self- injurious behaviors such as head banging, for others it’s extinguishing destructive behaviors such as destroying the belongings of others.  For Matthew, with the help of teachers and behaviorists over the years, we have worked hard on extinguishing many of his challenging behaviors.  The work continues.  While his peers are at sports practice and after school activities, Matthew is working with his behaviorist on how to maintain personal space when talking to others and how to remember to not touch items that may be hot like the toaster, the oven or the grill. 

Why is this candle snuffing job at church such a big deal?  Please remember, Matthew is a child who has been receiving physical therapy (for gross motor delays and weakness) and
occupational therapy (for fine motor delays and weakness) since he was 9 months old.  He still receives these services today, twice weekly.  When I think about the amount of fine motor control and coordination it takes to snuff out a little flame with a large candle snuffer – I appreciate that his ability to do this job captures the progress and growth he’s made over the years.  With the support of skilled teachers and therapists, he has grown in his attention to detail, gross and fine motor progress, maturity (a little bit) and his eagerness to try something new. 

Watching Matty snuff out the candles at church also gives me hope that he will continue to learn new skills and extinguish the challenging behaviors that don’t serve him.  While autism does not define him, it will always be a part of who he is.  Lifelong.   

While I know that we will always be working on a challenging behavior to extinguish throughout his life, I am proud of my boy for finding a way to use his high interest in cause and effect to do something helpful and hopeful.

 Here he is – a short clip of Matthew candle snuffing. (Sorry it won't work on a phone, but will play if you view on a computer)

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