A few years ago we had a family holiday in Corfu, as the holiday approached I explained to all the kids how we were going to get to our destination; a direct flight to Corfu after which we were picking up two hire cars and driving to our holiday home. (Two small cars are a lot cheaper to hire than one people carrier and as we are a family of 6 we went for the two car option). This meant that I was going to be driving from Corfu airport, through the main city and along the unfamiliar winding coastal road, with numerous hairpin bends along cliff edges, for about 50 minutes, at night, in the dark! I was fairly worried and anxious about this last leg of the journey. However my strong desire for some sun and sea easily outweighed my holiday driving fears. No contest.
This trip was going to be the first time Edward and the twins had flown and unsurprisingly Edward, in his usual thorough manner, started to find out everything he could posiibly discover about flying. He researched about aeroplanes and became fascinated with plane crashes. He knew about black boxes and flight recorders and about the different safety features introduced after each disaster. He found out where the safest place to sit on the aircraft would be, although that seemed to vary depending on the type of crash, so it wasn’t exactly useful information. He and Seb even started making lego aeroplanes to re-enact various real life plane disasters. They didn’t appear anxious at all, but his incessant talk about plane crashes wasn’t exactly relaxing for the rest of the family. Leila, in particular, found it distressing and pleaded with us to make him stop. We tried.
Children with autism tend to have poor theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to know what another person might be thinking or feeling. If you have good theory of mind you will be very aware of how the words you speak and the actions you take will affect other people’s thoughts and feelings. It’s basically having the ability to put yourself in another persons shoes. Edward couldn’t, at that time, understand why talking about aeroplane disasters was causing Leila to get so incredibly upset and cross with him. He definitely knew that what he was saying was causing a reaction and I suspect that he carried on talking about plane crashes partly for the pure fascination and pleasure of having the power to wind his older sister up, but mainly because he was genuinely really fascinated by this grizzly subject.
photo by Blake Handley, flickr creative commons
Before we got to the airport I realised I was going to have to provide some theory of mind training so I set a rule. The rule was given as follows; “Edward, you are not allowed to talk about aeroplane safety or aeroplane disasters when we are at the airport or when we are on the aeroplane”. He wanted to know why I was setting a rule so I explained that other people would not like hearing him speak about aeroplane disasters or aeroplane safety because it would make them feel anxious about their journey. Edward thought that this was completely ridiculous. “Hearing me talk about disasters won’t make a disaster more likely to happen!” he retorted when I told him the rule. I agreed that although this was true, just having to hear about aeroplane disasters would make most people feel unhappy and worried if they were about to go on, or were already sitting inside an aeroplane. I stressed that even though this seemed irrational to him it was how most people thought so therefore he needed to learn to think about how he affected other peoples feelings through the words he said. Throughout the journey, he did brilliantly and I was incredibly proud of him. Not once did he mention aeroplanes on the entire trip. It was a relief.
We arrived safely at Corfu airport and joined the queue for the car hire. I began to feel my heart racing and my head gently pounding as I tried to deal with my rising anxiety about driving to our holiday home. As I attempted to remain calm, Edward turned to me and said very matter of factly, “Mum, do you realise that we are now entering the most dangerous phase of our journey?”.
As my face whitened Nick announced that Edward and Leila would be travelling in his car!
I took the twins who being attuned to my stress levels, wisely sat in silence in the back of my hire car as we tailed Nick in his.
We arrived after a fairly hair raising journey ending with the narrowest, windiest, hilliest, house lined road I have ever driven along. I was physically shaking when I got out of the car but once we had setlled in we had a fantastic holiday and by the end of it I was driving like a local, well almost.
(This post has been linked up with other parent blogs at Spectrum Sunday and #bloggerclubUK)