Finding Ourselves on the Autism Spectrum

It seems I was mistaken

It seems I was mistaken.

My middle son, Alvin, likes to make noise – constantly. He hums and drums and whistles quite loudly all through the day until each and every other member of the household is at their wit’s end. And I have honestly believed, up until quite recently, that this was done for the express purpose of annoying the people around him and/or getting attention. It has seemed even more bothersome in light of the fact that two of us have Aspie issues and difficulties tuning out background noise in order to function. And when my NT husband who doesn’t generally have these issues has also been driven to distraction, I have usually concluded that the noisemaker was, in fact, being a trouble-maker.

Please understand, Alvin does cause trouble. He “stirs the pot” so to speak and will move from room to room in our home starting unpleasant interactions with whomever he finds. Besides making random noises all through the day, he will talk at length to people who are clearly trying to read, nag people about issues on which they’ve already declared their position quite clearly, comment upon siblings’ activities and personal habits, and even harass our pets when he’s feeling bored – all seemingly just to get a response. He also has a tendency to invade other people’s space and to barge into rooms that aren’t his when other people are trying to be left alone, because he doesn’t like being alone. And when he’s not doing any of that, Alvin’s still making seemingly random noises.

I usually deal with Alvin’s anxiety and boredom by going along with whatever social plans he happens to make, giving him jobs to do which take him out of the room currently being occupied by his latest victim, and trying to find books series for him to read. Once Alvin finds a series he likes, he’s a reading machine. I also try and create times when I will specifically pay attention to him and give him a chance to tell me about whatever is on his mind. He doesn’t really require that other people participate in his conversations and frequently argues with whatever they say, anyway, but he has a tremendous need to talk. Still there are frequently times when enough is enough, and I just need a few minutes of quiet in order to think before I can figure out how to meet his needs and mine and everyone else’s. And that’s generally when things like the random noises become too much.

Alvin doesn’t have a diagnosis. I can tell from my experience with Simon that Alvin has major anxiety issues, and I’ve witnessed his temper. I even took him to therapy for a while to try and work on anger management. He has problems with being alone, unless he’s really engaged with a book or a game, so he keeps seeking out company. Then his general behavior begins to annoy whomever he’s with, and Alvin gets defensive and angry. He’s smart and loves to argue, so then the interaction turns into an argument, which with siblings can often escalate into something physical. So basically, the kid moves from room to room leaving problems in his wake. I can actually tell what room he’s in by listening for where there’s a problem brewing in my house, and when he’s away at a friend’s, the house is noticeably quieter.

Once again, all of us including myself have been working on the assumption that Alvin is doing this on purpose – or that at the very least he has some control over his behavior that he’s not exerting. He’s not autistic. He behaves very well at school, and I’ve never had a complaint from any of his friends’ parents. He has at least a general understanding of which of his behaviors are problematic for other family members and why, because he’s been told at length again and again. But it just keeps happening. And I think I’m starting to see why.

As it turns out, Alvin is constantly making noise even when no one else is around. Lately I’ve been finding him humming and drumming and tapping and whistling even when there’s no one there to annoy. I’ve also been trying out this idea of looking at my other kids the way I look at Simon – not assuming he can do things just because others can or because he’s supposed to be a certain way at a certain age. Simon has a diagnosis and a whole string of professionals who could give reasons why he has certain difficulties. Alvin doesn’t have any of that, but does that really mean there’s nothing going on with him? He’s certainly anxious, and while that might be reduced if he weren’t in such frequent conflict with those around him, for now maybe the noise-making behaviors are just his way of soothing himself. That’s how I would interpret the situation if it were my Aspie son doing the same things. Why should he be the only one who gets the benefit of the doubt?

My husband will occasionally joke that Simon is my child and Alvin is his child because of their personality traits, and I haven’t disagreed. (We’re still not settled on which of us gets to claim our overly social Theodore :)). More and more it’s looking like I’ve been judging the behavior of my essentially NT middle son differently simply because he’s not an Aspie. Looking back, I think I’ve been holding Alvin to a different standard. It’s a standard that hasn’t worked for at least two of us in this family, so why should I assume it would work for him?

Just as I’ve been in the middle of writing this we’ve had another problem between siblings. It was typical in that there was really no one person at fault. Simon didn’t want Alvin invading his space, Alvin was just trying to talk to him, and everybody overreacted. After separating them and solving the immediate problem, I told Alvin some of what I’ve been thinking about things that he does not really being on purpose and maybe just being a way to calm himself. He told me that the “not being on purpose” part was what he’s been trying to say before, and I told him I was sorry for not understanding and believing that right away. I’m not sure exactly where we go from here, but just saying that seemed to calm him down quite a bit. We still have the problem of managing the needs of a family member who feels compelled to make noise and the needs other family members who require quiet in order to think and function. Hopefully with all of our needs on more equal footing we can start to make some progress.

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Comments on: "It seems I was mistaken" (10)

  1. This is very interesting. BB makes noises all the time, and one of the ways that I know we’re brewing up a meltdown is that he goes quiet. Therefore I deduce that the noises are self-calming. If Alvin is anxious, it sounds like he uses noise in a similar way. It sounds like a wonderful flash of understanding to think of looking at Alvin with the same insight that you use for Simon. I hope it helps. It will certainly be a challenge to your powers of diplomacy to balance both their needs!

    • Thank you. I wish these little moments of insight would show up a little earlier in the program, but we have to live with what we have today. Managing multiple kids is certainly a challenge. I think I adapt OK when dealing with each individually, but a lot of the time it seems like I’m having to choose the needs of one over another. I mostly end up just trying to take turns with whose side I choose unless there’s a very clear priority.

  2. Hmmm…Are ya sure Alvin isn’t on the spectrum? It sounds like he can be quite, um, passionate and extreme and focused about what he’s doing, and the soothing himself part sounds eerily familiar. Lots of spectrum kids behave quite nicely at school and then let loose at home.

    But then again, it could be something else entirely. I had a brother that sounds a lot like Alvin–a born provocateur. He’d argue with you about anything, including the color of the sky on a cloudless day. Exhausting. But he was not autistic. I don’t know what was going on with him, but his whole personality was on overdrive.

    And it’s awesome that you told Alvin that you believe him and that you’d made a mistake. Kids love to hear that stuff. Grownups, too. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel.

      Honestly, Alvin is just so socially adept and aware and has never had any noticeable sensory issues to speak of, so we don’t tend to think of him in those terms. When he wants to be, he’s actually quite good with his Aspie brother and with a good friend of his who is also an Aspie – he just seems to have a sense of how he needs to adapt in order to get along with different types of people. He’s also great with babies and toddlers and animals, as long as he’s in a helpful mood. But the sibling thing makes it so he only occasionally uses his power for good here at home.

      I grew up with a brother who was very much like Alvin in terms of basic personality. We didn’t get along very well. He always wanting to start things up, and I just wanted to be left in peace. Alvin likes to keep things interesting, and he likes to argue just for the sake of arguing. He goes around the house asking people questions so he can tell them why they’re wrong or explain how he knows so much more. It is extremely tiring.

      Alvin has all this very understandable stress from growing up with a brother who has always been larger and not so much in control of himself, and he frequently gets into trouble for trying to be what we’ve termed the “third parent” and trying to control the behavior of others. I get that policing his siblings is probably his way of dealing with uncertainty and anxiety, but it hadn’t occurred to me that some of his less obvious behaviors might stem from that, too. I was too busy focusing on the fact that Alvin’s behaviors were causing extra stress for everyone else. If only I could just manage one set of issues at a time. 🙂 At least if I can admit there’s a different way to look at things, we have a starting point.

  3. HI Diane,
    the constant noise thing certainly sounds self soothing. I suspect he has a very busy mind and this arguing provides a structured outlet for it. He will probably make a great lawyer 🙂
    As others have said being able to acknowledge that he is not trying to annoy everyone with his noise is important. That validation will have meant a lot to him. I understand how hard it can be to have a noisy person around when the others crave peace. I also imagine it can be just as hard to crave interaction and stimulation in an environment that is quiet. That’s a tough balancing act.

    • Hi, Sharon.

      Nice of you to stop and comment. I just made a visit to your blog and added you to my blogroll.

      My husband and I have both made the observation that Alvin would make a great lawyer. He’s also quite mechanical and shares my other boys’ aptitude for math, so I can also see him an an engineer – maybe an engineer who argues with people a lot. 🙂

      I think you’ve got it exactly right about it being just as difficult to manage whether you’re the quiet one or the one craving stimulation when you’re living with people who feel differently. I suppose it’s all good practice for surviving out in the world later on with different sorts of people, but it would be nice if home could be a place where we could all feel some comfort and be able to relax. We can each have that, but it’s hardly ever at the same time. And as the mom, it’s hard for me to genuinely relax when any of the others is having trouble. At least everybody has their own room where they can retreat when it gets to be a bit much. 🙂

  4. Diane,
    The noise making sounds like a tic. I’m glad you now realize he is not doing this on purpose. I also think it is great that you acknowledge Alvin is like your brother. Balancing different personalities is always a challenge. My son loves to talk and forgets his sister craves quiet, so I can understand how difficult this is. Balancing the needs of opposites is never easy. Best wishes on this.

    • Thanks, Sue.

      It doesn’t appear like a tic in a neurological sense – he whistles whole tunes, taps out specific rhythms of songs, says things in funny voices (he does a great impression of R2D2) – that sort of thing. But I do think he finds some of it soothing, or at least it helps him focus. There are other times when he really is just trying to annoy people, which he ackowledges. He is a little brother, after all. 🙂 For now, we’re working on having certain times and places where we’re going to try and be quieter (bedtime, a room I’ve already designated as a sort of quiet area, etc.), and trying to let it go at other times and in other locations. I’m acknowledging that he does this without really thinking about it a lot of the time, and he’s acknowledging that while he isn’t always aware when he starts, he can tone things down some of the time. Anyway, it’s progress.

  5. Pudding is a noise-maker. She can’t be quiet, and in the last couple of months has begun to hum. Her brother is very sensitive to sound, so I feel your pain. I’m hoping as time goes on that she’ll learn to be quiet when needed, and he’ll tolerate noise better. I agree, it is entirely unfair on both types to be in the same family!

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