Today is THE day. The day that we have been waiting for since November 22, 2013 when the much anticipated movie “Frozen” debuted in theaters. We were visiting family for Thanksgiving and the boys’ grandparents took us all out to see it. (There seems to always be a new movie to see whenever we visit together. Sorry Mimi and PaPaw. It’s not like we plan it that way…) Suffice to say, the movie lived up to its hype. Grown adults were laughing and crying. Okay, only the women were crying, but everyone was laughing. My youngest, unaware that this was a musical, kept saying, “What’s with the SINGING?!” Samuel was mesmerized. He kept asking questions. LOTS of questions. I just tried to answer them quietly and encourage him to be quiet or whisper.
Immediately following the movie, Sam asked when he could get it on DVD. I don’t remember when we found out the release date, but when we did, it was at least more than a month away. March 18th was THE date. He looked it up on a calendar and saw it was on a Tuesday. He reminded us it was coming out March 18th. Every day. “‘Frozen’ comes out on March 18th, Mom! Don’t forget! Can we get it on DVD? We can get it on March 18th.” And so March 18th was indelibly written in every crevice of my mind. You cannot imagine the excitement of this child just before he left for school, and as he ran home from the bus stop. Well, you probably can. Think of a cross between an exuberant child who cannot sleep on Christmas Eve mixed with that of a child who was just told his parents were taking him to Disney World, and throw in the thrill of a kid discovering a basket filled with candy on Easter morning. Whatever you’re thinking, you’re probably right. Knowing just how very important this was to him, and being the incredibly awesome mom that I am, I had pre-ordered the movie on Amazon. You better believe I checked and double-checked the tracking on that package! True to their word to deliver by 8pm on the date of the DVD release, we received the movie in plenty of time. I was just happy it came before he got home from school.
Sam’s fascinations with movies and the characters does not just border on obsessive. He crossed the border, naturalized, and built a house in Obsession Land. He watches the same movie repeatedly. By that, I mean that when the movie credits are over (which he watches until the very last credit disappears lest he miss anything,) he presses play again. After watching the movie a couple of times, he then likes to go to the menu, choose a scene, and re-watch that scene repeatedly. As he does so, he asks a lot of questions about it. Why did Lightning McQueen have mud on his hood? Why did Mater laugh when Sally said…? Why is Darth Vader breathing like that? Is he evil? Why is he evil? What is a fjord? Why is fjord spelled with an “j” when that’s not how you say it? Why did Elsa do that? Can you make your hair look like Elsa’s? And on, and on, and on they go. Through every scene.
His obsession does not stop with just watching the movie either. That would be too simple. He has the memory of an elephant and remembers every line, which he scripts. Constantly. And then begs us to act it out with him, songs and all. He remembers the music. To give you an idea of the kind of memory he has: we first saw the movie in November. In January, we bought him the full soundtrack. It had every piece of music you heard in the movie, orchestral music and all. The very first time he listened to the soundtrack, he was able to tell me exactly what was happening in the movie during any particular point in the music. Even the orchestral music. (That was the most impressive part.) The music was not in order of how it was played in the movie, either. Did I mention he’d only seen the movie ONCE?! Two months ago?! That is a gift.
Today was the first day he had the actual movie in his possession and no longer needed to rely on YouTube videos to watch various scenes. He had therapy, so he was able to work for time to continue watching. We made it through to the end of the movie by the end of therapy. After dinner, they all watched the bonus features. He was a bit perturbed, though, because our DVD player quit reading discs a few nights ago. Kyle brought up the one from downstairs that had been given to us – without the remote. When you don’t have the remote, you can’t go into the menu to choose certain scenes to watch… and then re-watch. He was in tears about it. I did not understand that. Why can’t he just watch the movie all the way through?
And then it dawned on me. As I thought about all the questions he asked, getting up and pressing pause on the DVD player to ask his questions, much to the chagrin of his brothers, I remembered something else. I had read about another boy with autism who was also obsessed with Disney movies.
The boy in the story also kept rewinding scenes to watch them repeatedly. The question on every autism parent (and sibling’s) mind who’s child does this is, “Why do you do that?” The reason is because people with autism do not process things like most people. When I watch a movie, I can hear the dialogue, understand inflections, facial expressions, mood, emotion, body language, etc; all while also noticing the pretty flower in the background, remembering what just happened and why that’s important in this scene. One of the questions I remember being asked when Sam was being diagnosed was, “Does he tend to notice parts of the whole?” For instance, if he were playing with a car, did he only spin the wheels instead of using the whole car as it was intended to be used? The reason behind that is because he can only focus on one thing at a time. The wheels are the most noticeable part of a car – they move. The color and shape are completely insignificant. When reading a book, he focused on one part of the colored cardboard page and did not understand the story as a whole illustrated on that page.
Transfer all of that to watching movies. Movies are not stagnant, like books or toys. With a book or any concrete object, you can hold it close, pull it far away from you, and you can look at it from every angle. It won’t go anywhere, unless you lob it across the room. But not so with movies. Scenes change within seconds of each other. Depending on the scene, the background might be the same, or it might change – like during a song where there’s lots of movement. Typical brains are able to process all of that information at once and just as fast as the movie moves. Not the autistic brain. The autistic brain needs to process everything too, but it can’t keep up with that kind of pace. The autistic brain needs to press pause and take it all in. Examine it all from every angle. Ask questions. LOTS of questions. Sam doesn’t understand why some jokes are funny, so when everyone in the theater laughs, he doesn’t get it and it’s very frustrating. Then he talks loudly to talk over all the laughter and ask me why is everyone laughing? He needs to understand what’s happening in the movie at every point. He needs to understand the jokes and the dialogue. That’s why his favorite feature on a DVD is the main menu. It’s like a “choose your own adventure.” He can go to any scene he wants, pause it at any point, and ask all the questions he has about it. He doesn’t just watch movies. He dissects them. When he has dissected the movie to the fullest extent, fully understanding every last bit of it, he’s done with it.
A light bulb went off as I pieced all these things together. He obsessed over Cars, and then Cars 2. For years. Every time he watched the movie, he was always watching the different scenes, one by one. Watching and then skipping back to watch them again. And then one day, he announced that he was done with Cars. He didn’t watch the movie. He wouldn’t play with the toys anymore. No more reading books or printing out coloring pages. He moved on to obsess over Star Wars. That one was a little different because we only had the VHS tapes and no DVD’s. He watched every single Star Wars tape and struggled through fast forwarding and rewinding the parts he wanted to watch more. He didn’t really watch the movies all that much, but when a friend at church lent him a large Star Wars Trivia book of several hundred questions, he was able to answer them. Correctly. And then one day, he was done with Star Wars too. He did the same thing with Despicable Me… both of them.
I realized that the reason he stopped cold turkey was that he had gotten all he could out of whichever movie(s) he had previously studied. I can watch the same movie a couple times in a row, but really by the third time, I’m done. But if I couldn’t process the movie as a whole until I processed each individual component, it really would take a very long time, requiring many viewings of the same thing. So if you think about it, that makes total sense! (Aaaaand there’s the link to the awkward title of this post.)
Watching him jump up to hit the pause button as he watched “Frozen” for the first time at home triggered all these past musings over why in the world he does what he does. Looking back and understanding the cycle that he gets into with movies, I have hope that we will not forever be stuck in “Frozen.” There will be a day when Samuel finally does “Let It Go.” (You had to know that one was coming!) So in the meantime, I can have a little more sanity and peace as he begins the process of picking apart this movie until he understands every piece of it in its totality. Sure, I might break out into song in my sleep. Or in the middle of the grocery store. But that’s okay, because “For the First Time in Forever,” I’ll finally understand one more piece of the autism puzzle in my son. Besides, it’s not like he’s the only one who does things differently. After all, (sly grin,) aren’t we all “a bit of a fixer-upper?” 🙂
Keeping Calm and Letting It Go,
(Please note: The reference to “Fixer-upper” is a joke that should not be taken as a serious, or any kind of offense against people with autism. We all do things differently according to our needs. I don’t think Sam needs to be “fixed.” That’s the point of this whole post. He does things the way he needs to do things, and within reasonable boundaries, those things are just fine with me. It’s kind of cool to feel like I better understand him and am therefore better able to anticipate his needs. When you understand something, it’s much easier to accept it and treat it with more grace and compassion than you would if it didn’t make any sense at all. Relax, and laugh a little.)