Who am I?
Mom: A very endearing little boy that needs a lot of routine and reassurance. Who needs a lot of love, like any small boy, endearing or not. And who is not broken or doesn’t need to be “fixed”. If we stopped seeing people with autism as broken, ill, not like us, we could create a better place for them – and for us – in society. Because they have a right to exist fully in society, not in special schools, special placements, special activities, so that their appearance, their tics, their anxieties and their crises do not offend the regard of “normal” people.
Dad: My partner in hiking. A funny, affectionate boy who is curious and likes to explore as long as he feels safe and has enough structure and points of reference in place. The one that pushed me to question myself and to change more than anyone or anything else.
Matei lives with his mom and dad in Brussels. Both his parents have been born in another country and have come to Belgium about a decade ago. He is an only child.
Matei likes to build elaborate stories for his paper cutout friends. he brings these friends with him in the trips he takes with his dad. He organizes for them school days at home, in which he acts as teacher or school principal.
He can get into a laughing fit out of nothing. All emotions are felt and expressed intensely. He often writes invisible texts with his finger in the air.
Matei expects things to happen in a certain way. Predictability is reassuring for him. He may have a hard time accepting a sudden change in the schedule.
He’s good with spatial and temporal orientation, maths, and planning.
Matei is sociable but social codes are still a mystery for him. Sometimes, when he meets people for the first time, he asks about their name, age, and address. He knows the birthdays of everybody by heart.
Matei has three questions ready when he meets someone for the first time: “What is your name? “, ” How old are you ? and “Where do you live?” “. The questions always follow this order. If the name is not a problem, people start to be hesitant about their age or address. However, it’s surprising how many of them end up pleasing Matei. I guess some people understand the game (“these are the things that make it easier for me to communicate with you”) and decide to play it. We all need our anchors to connect.
Being in nature
M. takes a lot of trips with his dad. Most of these are short, 2-3 day trips not far from home. Still, preparing such a trip is not easy. For him, as for many kids with autism, it’s important to know in advance what the place looks like and what the program will be. It’s also essential that they leave home exactly when planned, not one minute later.
The location of these trips is heavily negotiated. M. is quite accommodating with any program as long as his wishes are taken into account: a visit to the McDo and to the local supermarket. He never complains about having to walk too long but he will ask for snacks every half hour.
The moments spent in silence hiking along a river or following a narrow footpath into the woods are the best. There’s silence and space enough for M. and his dad to be alone with their thoughts yet together. There is no need to describe or explain. Communication is reduced to the bare bones: thirst, hunger, rest, reassurance, care.
There’s a lot that can be communicated in silence. There’s an energy that moves around and needs sufficient silence and awareness in order to be felt. Words can come up here and there but they do not add anything important to this energy flow.
M. likes to know where he is and where he’s going. He is always well-oriented in space and time. When driving to their next destination, his father would sometimes ask M. where they are. Without having a mobile, map or anything else, he almost always answers correctly.
He likes to draw maps of the city’s public transportation system. He uses different colors for the different types and lines of transport. M. is able to tell exactly which buses and trams pass by a certain stop. His mind seems to run a simulation of the entire transport system.
Matei has difficulty reading and extracting meaning from text. Without visual support, concepts are difficult to manage. Causal relationships are difficult to understand and he sometimes confuses cause and effect when asked to explain why he said or did something. On the other hand, he is good with numbers and spatial orientation. When he travels in the car with his father, he is able to know where they are along the way, without a map.
Matei instantly remembers almost everything from the past: the places he visited, the people he met, that morning when Dad was angry with him because he shouted a lot. He can tell without hesitation on which day of the week a particular future date will fall. At school, he does well at most tasks but gets bored quickly and rushes through tasks just so he can finish and change activities.
Finding the right balance between routine and exploration is a moving target. Matei was very adamant when it came to discovering new places during his weekly trips out of town with his father. Not only did he ask over and over again to go to the same 2-3 places, but he wanted to do the same things in the same order while he was there. Today, a few years later, he looks for new places on the map and negotiates the program of the visit with his father every week. Some things stay the same, such as stopping at a restaurant along the way. But much else is likely to change, and the need for control and predictability seems to have faded to just a few things.
Matei needs a lot of attention and affection to regulate his own emotions. Sensory and emotional regulation go hand in hand. He often asks to feel his mother’s eyelashes against his face. Or pressing his lips to the corners of Dad’s eyes. Or even putting your fingers in your parents’ eyes. It’s sensory. It’s not comfortable for the other person. It’s repetitive. But it is his way of letting out a whirlwind of emotions and affects. It’s their way of asking for connection or reassuring themselves that the connection is still there.
For Matei, verbal expressions of affection are rare. When they appear, they appear unexpectedly and without an obvious link to any antecedent. For a long time, Matei’s mother would lie down with him at night until he fell asleep, which could take up to two hours. She always wished him goodnight as she lay down. One night he started replying “I love you.” It lasted about ten days, a good night on one side and an I love you on the other.