Grandpa in the House: Defining “Weirdness”
Grandpa is Different.
When does “weird” happen? I was called this often as a kid. I dressed badly, was painfully shy, and my hair was a tangled uncombed mop. My social skills were lacking until my late teenage years. By then I was spending more time with peers than with my parents. I learned from my friends how to be less weird.
But when do kids start to identify others as weird?
My son is not there yet. I love his preschooler’s open mind. He is completely accepting of others and differences. It does not occur to him that others are doing something socially wrong by doing whatever comes naturally to them. It is just what they do.
He has no clue that Grandpa is different from other grandparents. What differences he can pick up on are based solely on age. He knows that Grandpa is old, my husband and I are “medium” and he is young. Grandpa has certain needs because he is old.
Except, Grandpa has always been like this.
I’ve known that my son will someday need clarification about my dad. But the moment may arrive sooner than I expected. This realization came as one of the countless questions my four year old puts to me every hour. I was ready for the “how did I get in your tummy” question, the “why don’t girls have penises” question, even the “what happens to you if you are melted by a volcano” question. But I was not ready for this.
“Why does Grandpa whistle? Is it to make nice music for him?”
My dad whistles a lot – practically all the time. He also hums, taps his knee, drums his fingers, and every meal involves a chorus of chops, scoops, and dings that can easily be mistaken for a construction site. His food is prepared and eaten with highly repetitive yet jarring movements. I am driven slightly crazy four times a day, including his midday snack. These sounds were a constant, even comforting, part of my childhood but I’ve since lost the ability to ignore them.
My son’s question struck me dumb for a moment. I thought, formed an answer, had a response on the tip of my tongue, but then changed my mind. Should I explain that my dad has special needs? No, not yet.
Finally I just agreed. “Yes, it’s to make nice music for him.” With my panic over I then processed what my son actually said and my heart melted. My son’s first response to my dad’s “weirdness” was something positive – nice music.
The day will come when I will need to explain my dad’s specialness to my son. I continually educate myself on Asperger’s to ensure that I am using correct language and can explain the reasoning behind many of the behaviors I grew up with but never understood.
We all have repetitive behaviors that we do to fill pauses in our day – twirling our hair, cracking our knuckles, tapping our feet, humming the latest pop song. But individuals on the Autism spectrum can do these types of behaviors more often and with more intensity. They are less able to control them and the frequency makes them stand out to neurotypicals, or non-Aspies. It is known as stimming – short for self-stimulatory behavior. The theory behind stimming is that this self-stimulation can actually counter over stimulation by the outside world. It feels good and has a calming effect.
I feel ready to discuss it with my son when the time is right. Until then, I will try to enjoy the music. Background on stimming is widely available on the internet – a good short article from 2013 is here: Stimming: What autistic people do to feel calmer.
[Photo credit: (cc) Jonathan Cohen]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wendy is an educator and history geek who lives in a century old summer cottage in Goshen with her family, dog, and two cats. She recently left her work in museum education to become a full time stay at home caregiver to her young son and elderly father. Her column touches on the juggle of the sandwich generation and issues surrounding elders on the Autism spectrum. When not playing, cleaning, cooking, or chauffeuring, she reads local history, mommy blogs, and celebrity gossip – but she will never admit to that last one.