I had the most fascinating conversation with my son the other night. He’s been struggling with storytelling and writing lately, specifically when he’s asked to illustrate stories about people.
This seems out of character for him since he loves to draw, enjoys reading and used to enjoy coming up with stories. The last year or so, he’s gotten very agitated when he’s asked to draw people, especially faces. Even I’m not allowed to draw faces while trying to help him, and characters on his homework pages with what he calls ‘silly faces’ bother him.
So I decided to work with him on the issue. He needs to be able to draw people doing things for his writer’s workshop in school.
I started by drawing goofy faces, which he didn’t approve of. Then I drew a cube, which he got excited about, until I drew a face on it. I tried to use his favorite game as an example, asking if we could draw Geometry Dash characters. This is most definitely didn’t approve of.
Geometry Dash does not have characters. It has icons. And they are not people or have faces. So Square Guy and Star Girl were quickly dashed.
By this point he was getting really agitated, so I asked what kind people he would be okay drawing. He said stick figures. I asked him to show me. He drew a circle with a line attached. I told him that wouldn’t work. A circle and a line was a balloon. Not a person.
So I tried another angle. I asked if he was drawing Alan, the balloon guy from the Amazing World of Gumball. I told him balloon people were okay if they had faces, and I drew a face on a balloon person like Alan. While this made him laugh, balloon people with faces wouldn’t work either.
So we came to the agreement that stick people with arms and legs would work. And we started writing some stories together. I made a goofy story with a stick man and a dog. I wasn’t allowed to name the stick man a human name, but I could name him a number. So it was Stick Man One and Stick Dog. Dog, interestingly enough, could have a face. One, could not.
Then my son wrote his own story, with Stick Man Twelve taking a walk, going shopping, coming home, cooking and eating “Happy Treats.” Amusingly, “Happy Treats” had smiley faces on the boxes. Twelve ate the “Happy Treats” and his belly was happy.
I asked if we could draw a smiley face on Twelve’s belly, and drew a stick man with no face, but a round smiling tummy. He said no, but we could show that Twelve’s belly was happy with thought bubbles going from his belly and showing a smiley face in the thought bubbles.
So it would seem that symbols that represent feelings are okay. Faces, though, are not.
I found the entire conversation extremely fascinating. Autism has been a factor in our lives for a good while now. Even before his diagnosis, I had been reading up about it and suspected that it was, indeed, Autism that often set my child apart from others.
I can relate to many of his difficulties, and the issues that I don’t relate to as well, my husband does. We are quite convinced that he is a product of us, and very little of what he struggles with are really a surprise to either of us.
But this aversion to faces, and how strongly he felt about it was a little out of my grasp. I’m not great at making eye contact. I do it, and sometimes I over compensate and stare, and sometimes I study a person because they are fascinating to me. I can often seem like a poor listener because I can only focus on the words or a person’s expression, not both. People in general make me nervous, and I have social anxiety, but I never thought it was people’s faces that bothered me.
Though names, I have trouble with. So, his aversion to naming his characters, I understand. Even now, while I put my characters names in print, and know them as intimately as if they were people, in real life situations, I don’t like saying my characters names. I often forget people’s names, even people I know quite well.
So I relate to some extent. But the level of agitation that simply drawing a face caused, that baffled me. We used to draw together a lot more, and this wasn’t an issue until recently. I wonder if he hadn’t developed the aversion yet, or he hadn’t made the connection to the fact that a face that is drawn represents the face of a person.
Either way, the intense discomfort he feels is very real. I hope someday he will be able articulate exactly why this is. It’s not that I need to know to believe him. I respect the fact that it is uncomfortable for him, and will continue to work with him on solutions and work arounds to help him adapt to the world’s expectations of him.