20: James 101

20: James 101

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

James 101

 . . . autism . . . is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an over-expression of the very traits that make our species unique.

~Paul Collins

Time Matters

James has a tag hanging on his backpack that says “Time Doesn’t Matter!”

This is a lie. For James, time doesn’t just matter, it matters more than anything. The tag, an attempt at thought shifting by James’s behavior therapist, hasn’t made a dent in my son’s all-consuming obsession with time. It’s a nice goal to have dangling there, though.

From the moment James learned about numbers (at a precociously early age), he has been fixated on them. The perseveration has taken on many different forms over the years — counting, calendars, computation, and the one that has lasted longest — clocks. As James’s fascination with time has persisted, and even grown, so has his anxiety about it. Deviations from planned arrival and departure times create meltdowns. Affinity for particular times on the digital clock dictate when he will enter or leave a room — or the house. It used to be “wish times” — 11:11, 1:11, 2:22 etc. Now it’s :41 after any hour — but only on our microwave — he likes the way the space between the 4 and the 1 looks on that particular digital readout. It is exasperating — and exhausting.

The flip side of this time obsession is that it can be helpful, and sometimes nothing short of extraordinary. James knows exactly what time it is at any given moment — a skill that has assisted many adults, including his teachers. He notices and remembers the exact moment we leave somewhere. You’d be surprised how useful this can be. He is also able to predict, with astonishing accuracy, what time we will arrive at a destination — sometimes one that is hours away. This past Thanksgiving, we set off on an excursion with my nieces. We all made a guess as to what time we would get where we were going. It appeared that James had come in a minute early on his prediction, when, just as the car rolled into the gates of our destination, the clock flipped — James was exactly right! Mayhem followed in the car, as his cousins shrieked in amazement. James just laughed and said “What? I always do that!”

I know that James will always feel a draw to the clock — and that his frantic attention to it will eventually give way to something else. When? I guess, when the time is right.

Frankfurter Frenzy

Saturday night, November 8th. Eight-year-old James and I are deciding what book to read before bed. He picks one up and starts flipping through it, again and again, like he’s looking for something. “Where’s that word, Mommy?”

“What word?”

“Frankfurter — that means hot dog.”

“I don’t know.”

Slightly agitated. “We read a book on September 16th. It was a Tuesday. And it said ‘frankfurter’ and you told me that was another word for hot dog. I thought it was this book.”

It wasn’t.

We spend the next twenty minutes trying to figure out what book it was. These are the kinds of things that produce great anxiety in James. The lip goes out, the eyes well up, the voice becomes shaky.

“It had a town in it, Mommy, and the word frankfurter. It was on September 16th.”

Did I mention it’s November? He not only remembers what day we read it, he knows what day of the week it was. Chances are he knows exactly what time it was too. Why the hell can’t he remember the name of the book?

I rack my brain, thinking about everything we read, because I know no one will be going to sleep until we figure this out. There’s no “we’ll keep looking tomorrow” for James. No “oh well, it’ll turn up!” The word “frankfurter” WILL be found — no matter how long it takes.

Do you know how many stories use the word “frankfurter?” Not too many. The books pile up on the floor, as James’s anxiety builds. He starts crying — and I’m starting to sweat.

My frantically darting eye lands on an anthology of stories that we’ve read from exactly once in our lives. I grab it, remembering a story about a town that had lots of food in it.

I flip through — YES I’m right! It’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs I declare triumphantly! James starts laughing. He grabs the book — and there it is: “frankfurter.”

“Mommy — you found it!” Pure glee. I breathe a sigh of relief as we settle in to read. It’s 9:40 — at least an hour past James’s bedtime. But at least he’ll be going to sleep! And thankfully, so will I.

Perfect Pitch

At fourteen months, James would wake up in his crib humming a note. When I carried him downstairs and put him down in front of our keyboard, he would play whatever note he was humming — go right to it, without hunting around for it.

At two, I taught him the names of all the notes on the keyboard. The world became one big tonal universe . . . leaf blowers were B flats, elevator dings were Fs, the ring of phone was a C. . . .

At three, James was listening to a group of live musicians tuning up their instruments at a restaurant, and called out “I like that A! Nice C sharp!”

We bought a piano.

James was four when our piano was tuned for the first time. He was out of sight in the kitchen and began calling out the names of the notes along with their numeric location relative to the eighty-eight keys. The piano tuner almost fell off the bench. When the tuning session was complete, he said, “I’ve tuned over 20,000 pianos — including Stevie Wonder’s — and I have never experienced anything like what I’ve just seen in the past hour!” Maybe he’d never tuned a piano for a kid with autism.

Over the years, James’s musical fixation has brought him — and those around him — great pleasure. It has also been the cause of intense perseveration, distraction and isolation. Overall, it has been more of a blessing than a curse. Music has served as a source of bonding and amazement wherever James goes. I sit down at the piano and struggle to figure out a song by ear. James wanders in and casually remarks, “You’re playing that in the wrong key, Mom, there’s an F sharp in that song!” At school, where he generally remains on the fringes of the social fabric, James is famous for his musical gifts. He is placed front and center during school shows, to keep the other kids in tune. Top 40 radio hits serve as a lunchtime conversation topic in his class. In third grade, at the end-of-the-year awards assembly, James was given a framed mock-up of a futuristic magazine cover with his photo and the headline:

“HOW JAMES BURROWS IS CHANGING THE FACE OF POPULAR MUSIC!”

They just might be right about that.

~Nancy Burrows

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