The Charlie-centric Cosmos (#278)

With the arrival of April, <a title=”Sumer is icumen in (#266)” href=””>spring is definitely here. Charlie wore shorts on an hour-plus bike ride spanning four different towns; ran through the house from the back yard to the front and then the porch as Jim raked up the winter’s harvest of pinecones; rode in the front seat beside Jim to our town’s recycling center, as two huge bins took up the back of the old green stationwagon.
“There’s some age limit, right, for him to be in the front seat?” Jim wondered.

“He probably qualifies by weight alone,” I said. “He’s three-quarters of me.”

Spring being here means that Persephone has returned from Hades, the Underworld in Greek mythology, and her mother Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, rejoices and flowers and crops and gardens come back. In the myth, Persephone’s visits back to earth are cyclical, as she spends spring and summer with Demeter, and fall and cold winter in Hades, in the land of the dead. I have often thought of this myth in living through, in living with, Charlie as he progresses and regresses. Charlie’s learning often seems to move in cycles: One day he seems to have forgotten how to do things we had thought he had mastered; he then slowly learns how to do them again.

Perhaps it’s more apt to think of Charlie as moving forward and then moving back in order to move forward. In astronomy, this sort of moving-back-as-part-of-moving-forward is called retrograde motion.

If you track the movement of a planet (such as Mars over several nights, the planet appears to move West to East against the background of the stars. Occasionally, a planet will appear to move from East to West against the constellation’s patterns for a few nights, and this backward-in-the-course-of-forward-movement is “retrograde motion.” Ancient astronomers like the 2nd century Ptolemy created elaborate explanations and mathematical models (involving phenomena called epicycles) to account for retrograde motion, which seemed highly illogical in a perfectly ordered Aristotelian universe.

Aristotle and Ptolemy believed in a geocentric cosmos, in which the earth was at the center of the universe and the moon, sun and planets rotated around it. Through his heliocentric model of the universe–in which the sun was at the center–the Polish astronomer Copernicus was able to account for retrograde motion due to the differing lengths of the planets’ orbits round the sun. And, while Copernicus was not the first to propose a heliocentric universe, his presentation of his theories in On the Revolutions (De Revolutionibus) (1543) and his mathematical proofs were indeed to rock the world.

A geocentric universe implied that humans were at the center of the cosmos, the fitting place for God’s most perfect creation. The theological implications of a heliocentric universe, in which the earth on which humans dwelt was but another planet orbiting the sun, questioned the deepest moorings of beliefs scientific and religious. Copernicus’ work was crucial to the Scientific Revolution, to the discoveries and innovations of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, and to our own reliance on science for rational, research-based, explanations of the phenomena of the world.

But back to Charlie sitting in the front seat of the mossy-smelling green car.
Autism is “officially” classified as a “developmental disorder” and I have never been comfortable with this term. Charlie is certainly ever developing, growing, growing up. But his growth and his learning are not in some easily chartable straight line; he learned his numbers at 2 1/2; he has yet to learn addition and subtraction formally. He mastered the alphabet last year. While Charlie is able to talk more and more—Miss Cindy, his verbal behavior therapist, noted that he asked to “go outside” all on his own today–and more clearly, there are many days when we hear a lot of humming and chirps and noises and have to prompt any words.

I have come to think that Charlie is–like all of us–always learning, but in an order all his own. His best teachers have been able to figure out what that order, that Charlie-methodology is, and to re-order their teaching to it. The tricky thing with Charlie is, just as he seems to be at his peak of learning–as at a “super happy” verbal behavior session in which he talked and talked and played and played–the sort of things occur that would seem to hold him back: With ten minutes to go, Charlie hit his head back and front.

The verbal behavior consultant was at the center and I told her, in detail, about how most of Charlie’s head-banging has been occurring in unstructured or less structured time, such as recess and break time. We talked about him seeming to be wanting attention at those moments, about working on him playing by himself. We didn’t talk about retrograde motion, and yet we were. “Progress” for Charlie can mean moving forward seven paces and back eight. In Autismland, “developing” happens differently and the difference is similar to believing in a geocentric vs. a heliocentric universe.

We live in a Charlie-centric cosmos. For Jim and me, the main business of the weekends is Doing Things With Charlie, from his verbal behavior session to a train ride tomorrow. Learning happens all the time.

As to whether a Charlie-centric cosmos has the earth or the sun at its center–I’m proposing that it’s the planet Mercury, that it is “hermocentric.” Mercury is the Roman name for the Greek god Hermes, the messenger god who is also the god of commerce and of thieves; who leads the souls of the dead down to Hades; who, as a baby in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, steals the cattle of the sun god Apollo and invents the lyre from the shell of a tortoise.

Mercury’s is a rather accelerated development, baffling to most people (and Greek gods)–a development “disordered” and different.

That is, if you’re not living in a Charlie-centric universe.

6 Responses to “The Charlie-centric Cosmos (#278)”
  1. zilari says:

    One very important skill for people to learn is how to structure their own unstructured time. I imagine that Charlie is probably stressing over the transitions between the actual therapy sessions (in which he knows what to do, when to do it, etc.) and the less-structured periods, in which he has to think of things on his own to do.

    This is one example of a situation in which I think it is crucial for autistic people to learn to structure their own time — autistically. When I first graduated from college, it took me months to “get over” the fact that I no longer had homework. I was “happy” to have Free Time, but I was so out of practice at following my own lead that I spent many hours staring, or wandering around the apartment, or just doing the same chore repeatedly.

    It was not a pleasant feeling.

    I had to learn, over the course of about three years, how to make my own structure when nobody was giving me one. And when I did, I found that I loved it — in a sense, I’ve recaptured the same sort of joy I knew in childhood, BEFORE anyone else imposed an agenda on me.

  2. “Structuring the ‘unstructured’ time” is a good way to put it—I think Charlie’s stress begins even before he find himself in an unstructured situation. He anticipates how he’ll feel and that seems to result in him getting upset.

  3. zilari says:

    Unstructured time is really weird. I love being on my own agenda — so I can do things like sorting and writing and lining things up and mapping the inside of my own brain — but at the same time, just knowing it’s going to have to end makes me antsy.

    There are still some things I’d really like to do — things that I know would be fun and fulfilling — but that I haven’t been able to start yet due to simple fear of being interrupted.

    As in, I don’t want to start a certain project of my own because the transition of having to leave this project for something like “sleep” or “going to work” would be incredibly traumatic.

    It took me several years after school for me to be able to write on my own again — that is, write about things I care about and that are of great interest to me — without having an assignment to prompt me into it.

    This is one thing I think a person has to be very careful with in terms of therapy and education: realize that external structure is not, and will not, be available all the time throughout a person’s life, so they need opportunities to develop the skills required to operate outside someone else’s structure.

    And at times, the structures people come up with on their own can lead to amazing things…things nobody outside the person could ever have anticipated.

    I think that one of the reasons I am as “independent” as I am these days is because I did have some periods of unstructured time in childhood — periods that I hold so precious in memory it almost feels as if I stole them.

    Being able to wander around, discovering and exploring things. Of course there was risk here — like my getting hold of the scissors at age three (nobody was hurt, but I ended up mangling some furniture), and falling out of trees, etc.

    I sometimes look back and wonder whether those periods of running around and “getting into things” were actually unintentional, just times in which I was forgotten about briefly. Or maybe I was being supervised from a distance and oblivious to the supervision — since people did seem to come running whenever something dangerous happened. (That is actually the more likely story).

    As I’m writing this, that actually comes to mind as a potential thing to try…perhaps unstructured periods of time, supervised, but from a distance. It can be hard when a child is prone to doing things that could, in fact, be seriously harmful (due to stress or not being able to anticipate the results of an action). No easy answers here, but lots of things to think about.

  4. Phil Schwarz says:

    Unh-unh. Nope-nope-nope-nope. (Yes, I am a fan of the Sesame Street Martians :-))

    A Charlie-centric world is not Mercury-centric.

    Generation Rescue, Safe Minds, et al. are Mercury-centric. They exist as documented proof that mercury *does* impair cognitive processes. Exposure to mercury causes some autism parents to think of nothing but.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. Still the random Purim- and April-Fool’s-Day silliness yah-yahs to excrete^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hget out.

    — Phil, who sometimes wishes he had the magic of Puck (or maybe its converse), with which to sprinkle fairy dust on both the mercury moms and the ABA-until-indistinguishable crowd, to convince each camp that the other stands in the way of getting the resources and mindshare it needs to triumph, and foment civil war… 🙂

  5. Phil, the choice of Mercury was entirely intentional–the messenger, trickster god must be wrested back from associations with all things vaccine.

  6. “unstructured periods of time, supervised, but from a distance”–

    Zilari, your memories and observations are beyond helpful, and then some.

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