Charlie’s Girlfriend (#198)

Since he was four years old, Charlie has been in seven different classrooms. After being in a home Lovaas program when he was 2-3 years old, Charlie attended a preschool classroom with “typical” peers (for three afternoons a week) and an aide from his home ABA program when he was four years old in St. Louis. Since he was five years old, he has been in various self-contained autism classrooms in two different towns in New Jersey, and he has seen many children come into and move out of his classroom.
One was a South Asian girl whom he spent the whole day staring at until the teacher put a partition up. The affection was mutual and reports came home about how Charlie pushed his way to sit beside her in circle time, how Charlie gave her part of his lunch, how the two held hands and delivered the attendance at the school office.

“Who would have thought, a love match in my class?” his teacher wrote.

All too soon, Charlie’s girlfriend departed for another classroom and, after the inevitable mourning period, Charlie got on with things, but not before I had thought, Roll over, Bettelheim, so much for autistic kids having no emotions and no interest in other people! It is true that Charlie is a boy of few words but we know that he is tremendously aware of everything said and done around him, and of other people.

And, as I interpret by Charlie’s fragmented language and changing behavior, of the people he spends a lot of time with, the other autistic children in his classrooms.

Of course, Charlie–a boy who must concentrate all of his faculties to get out a five-word sentence–has never told us in so many words that he missed anyone when he or she left his room forever, to be mainstreamed while he continued with 1:1 ABA. The stereotype about autistic persons is that they are more aware of objects than of people and Charlie does show a deep concern when he cannot locate his “yallow aht,” or the “bue coat,” or the “Buhnee,” or “ocean!” (meaning his beachscape placemat). But Charlie’s love for so many people is obvious when you see how his face lights up–his eyes get a bit brighter–at the mention of two sets of grandparents, so many therapists and teachers, his godparents, certain lovely friends.

It has long been an open secret that Charlie’s best reinforcement is not stuff–edibles (how many chips can anyone eat?), squishy balls, fleece blankets, wind-up toys–but the people who show him how that having all that stuff is fun. It’s not so much verbal praise that I suspect Charlie works for as the pleased look of the person saying “you did it!”.
In the past few years, Charlie has had periods of trouble a few weeks after some students have left his class. These have been the students who were around his age or even a little older. With their departure, Charlie became the eldest child in his classroom, though his academic and communicative skills too often seemed “behind.” I trace the start of The Regression of 2005 to the time after another boy, a month older than Charlie, moved away.

I went to observe Charlie at his new school this morning and noted how he worked at one program after another, took breaks in the play area and came back when called, and how his smile appeared at regular intervals. Charlie was clearly attentive and engaged amid the other boys and teachers. He has just started a social program with another student and, when told to “look at him,” Charlie did so. Later this evening, he perked up when I mentioned tha names of the boys in his new classroom.

Like I said, Charlie–who is only getting taller, darker, and handsomer–prefers the company of others and, quite simply, likes people.

6 Responses to “Charlie’s Girlfriend (#198)”
  1. MommyGuilt says:

    Oh his poor little heart must have been broken. I agree with you, though, that people as reinforcements, rather than stuff, seem to be more…oh what’s the word?…exciting.

    Charlie is such a sweet boy, I bet that girl just adored him, too!

  2. Mothersvox says:

    Charlie is a dazzler, isn’t he?

    The mistaken idea that kids like ours do not care for others, and have no social reciprocity, will, eventually, through the reporting of parents like yourself, have to go the way of other pseudo-science . . . This idea will vanish, as have other mistakes of science and psychiatry . . . such as the early 20th century the idea that you can tell a person’s personality by the bumps on their head (phrenology), or the DSM guidelines that not long ago made same-sex love and intimacy a sign of mental illness.

    Sweet M. has been betrothed since nursery school. She attended a preschool for neurotypical kids where she had special ed support services. That was where she hooked up with a little boy with whom she is still friends . . . the kids used to say–“Oh yeah, M and R are getting married.” The attraction was obvious–M. is the spitting image of R’s older sister who is arguably a sweet aspie.

    And as for bereavement among our little ones, you know what I’ve written about M.’s grief over the separation from her bestfriend last year . . .

    And not long ago, looking at the class picture from her current school, she pointed out one boy, and said, “Oooo, C. is *such* a *man*” and then went into a semi-swoon.

    Our kids are are complete thinking, feeling, passionate people. They kids have full, rich emotional lives. They simply lack the communication and language skills that make navigating these depths less perilous.

    How difficult can it be to see that? All one has to do is take of the diagnostic blinders and look at “the data.”

  3. Eileen says:

    Such silly thinking some people have to believe that our children would not feel just as much, if not more, than any other individual. I know Andrew likes girls already. I am sure that he knows the difference. I see how he acts differently among his girl cousins. He gets all silly and shy (just like his dad used to). I have no doubt that he to will have a love in his life soon just like Charlie did with his little friend in his class. Brian comments all the time to me how “that girl is pretty” and really notices already. I am sure if Andrew could verbalize more he would be saying the same.

    I know I wrote about this on one of my posts a while back, but I actually had the school social worker comment to me when I mentioned how affectionate Andrew was. She asked, “are you sure he doesn’t just crave the deep pressure?”. I will never forget. That comment has stayed with me and I am sure it always will. The good thing is that this particular social worker is no longer working in Andrew’s school, but still for the district so I may have to deal with her again some day.

  4. Lisa says:


    As always, your writing reaches me. Of course we have emotions and of course we connect deeply with the people in our lives. We simply have other ways of expressing that connection than the more neurotypical world.

    I am completely devoted to my husband and my two boys. So many people have commented on my marriage–how solid my relationship is with my husband, how considerate we are with one another, how much fun we are to be around (even after 18 years of marriage).

    It’s a ‘mixed’ marriage–he’s an ‘NT’ and yet we both get what we need from our relationship.

    So take that Bettleheim and DSM-IV!

    Love to you and yours,

  5. Preemiemum says:

    Oh Kristina, I agree so much with everything that has been posted. My little man holds love and affection for certain people in his life, he may not say it, but like Charlie you can see it in his eyes and the way he greets those that he holds with love.

    Bettleheim has so much to answer for!


  6. SquareGirl says:

    One of my clients, Joshua who is nine years old insisted on bringing flowers to school one day and his mother had no idea why. The teacher said he gave them to a girl in another classroom who’s birthday was that day. Joshua never said anything about the birthday and according to everyone, who worked with him, no one knows how he knew this.

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