Tag Archives: movies

About Face

Clenched teeth and narrow eyes? Angry. Tears streaming down face? Sad. Smile? Happy. Open mouth and wide eyes? Scared. Furrowed brow and tight lips? Not sure.

Over the years, Nigel has learned to read the cues of basic emotions and identify them, but he has yet to do the same for emotions that are less easily recognized, such as worry, relief, disinterest, embarrassment, confusion, and disappointment. They talk about these in his social skills class, and we talk about them at home, of course, but it’s hard for him to catch on. And it’s always difficult to apply the situations of Social Skills Class to the real world, although it’s certainly worth trying. Today, however, I stumbled across a more effective method.

It’s Disaster Movie Weekend here at Chez Nigel, during which he watches everything but the 2008 parody/spoof called Disaster Movie, which, he says, is not a real disaster movie. After cleaning his room more thoroughly than ever before, he was rewarded with a full movie weekend while Mom works (mostly) unhindered in her office, appearing only to make dinner (that was the plan, anyway). Nigel began with various Godzilla flicks, moved on to Deep Impact, Core, Volcano, and finished with his favorites, Twister and The Day After Tomorrow.

I’ve never been able to figure out why he enjoys these types of movies so much, but he has for a long time. He first saw Twister at the age of five, and has loved it ever since. He’ll rarely go more than a few weeks without watching it. Then a few years ago came The Day After Tomorrow, and all I can say is at least we now have an alternative to Twister. DAT has everything he loves about disaster movies – imminent destruction and earnest people trying to either stop it from happening or survive it. He doesn’t care about the writing or the acting. He doesn’t care if the movie got bad reviews. He’s just concerned with the main idea and the special effects (although he lets that slide for the old Godzilla movies he holds so dear).

So he’s watching The Day After Tomorrow out in the living room, and I venture out of my office in the early afternoon to facilitate lunch. I come and stand beside the couch, watching a scene near the end in which the father is reunited with his teenage son, for whom he had been searching. I’ve unwillingly watched this scene (and the whole movie) several times before, but something – my frame of mind, the loving energy that filled our home this weekend, something – makes it affect me differently this time. I stand there watching the scene, feeling emotional and trying to fight it. I think that I’m keeping it low-key and don’t think my appearance is that noticeable.

Nigel looks at me and says, “Your face. It’s making some sort of expression.”

And then I about lose it. My breath catches in my throat, and I have to turn away as tears pool in my eyes. He noticed! He didn’t know what the expression was for, but he noticed a subtle facial cue! I dab my eyes and compose myself, then turn back to my son.

“Yes, Nigel, it’s an expression of emotion. I was just feeling how the father felt in the movie when he found his son and hugged him. He was happy, but all the anxiety that he felt while looking for him just built up in that moment and made him emotional. Does that make sense to you?”

“I think so.”

I tell him how great it is that he’s starting to notice the subtle expressions of emotion that people show, not just the more obvious ones of anger, sadness, happiness, or fear. Like talking, like writing, like learning to be polite, this is probably something that will take him a long time to develop. But the fledgling ability is there, and I am pleasantly surprised.

I am equally surprised that I got choked up over The Day After Tomorrow. Next thing you know, I’ll be crying at life insurance commercials. I may have a harder time explaining that!

Obsessions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I loved tigers when I was a child. I collected tiger stickers and books about tigers; I lived for Wild Kingdom episodes about tigers. In fact, I still love tigers. In adulthood I’ve acquired two four-foot-long stuffed tigers, various tiger photographs and wall art, and even a tiger tattoo. It’s really the only obsession that’s stayed with me into adulthood. During childhood, I went through various flash-in-the-pan obsessions. I had my rainbow phase, my unicorn phase, my I-must-be-adopted-and-I’m-really-a-long-lost-princess phase. When I was interested in those things, I lived, ate, slept, and breathed them until they ran their course.  

Because of this, I completely understand my son’s Obsessions of the Week. Unlike his lifelong Lego obsession, the Obsessions of the Week don’t last too long and then fade into the background. They are often revived, and never completely abandoned, but they also never exist with the same intensity as their initial flare. Some are all-but abandoned, meaning that even though Nigel is no longer obsessed with them, he refuses to part with their physical manifestations. Take, for example, his popsicle stick obsession. I always thought that he was keeping them for one of his projects, and when he never made anything, I asked him if we could get rid of them. Noooo! He was saving them because he likes the riddles printed on them. Then there was his acorn obsession. Living in a suburban area and taking many camping and hiking trips on top of that, he accumulated an entire dresser drawer full of acorns over the course of about a year, thanks to a love of Scrat from Ice Age.

His other old Obsessions of the Week fall into various categories. He became obsessed with making things that (fortunately in most cases) never materialized: his own Rube Goldberg maze, his own Jurassic Park, a homemade spacecraft, a bomb shelter, and a covered wagon. Many of his obsessions are movie-related: The Goonies, The Terminator, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Dare Devil, Spiderman and Superman, King Kong, Back to the Future. And many others are history-related: World War I and II, the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, Titanic, the Oregon Trail, Clovis people, Ancient Greece, and various natural disasters, especially involving tornados and volcanoes.

But, like me with the tigers, Nigel also has obsessions – besides Lego – that have stayed with him a remarkably long time. He is a rock collector. We have baskets of rocks of diverse sizes and types all over the house. And sticks. Nigel has a fascination for sticks that I’ve never understood. That and the trash hoarding. He has drawer-fulls of trash in his room. Food wrappers, papers, pieces of plastic, bottles, lids, cans, packaging – the list goes on. I’m not sure how to deal with this situation. I think that it’s part of his OCD symptoms, but I’ll need to look into it further and discuss it with his doctor. In any case it falls outside of the cute and manageable Obsession of the Week criteria. He also exhibits other compulsions and rituals, like having to do some things in a certain order and needing to somersault down the hallways of the house to get from room to room. Those things don’t concern me too much, but the trash does.

And so I love the easy Obsessions of the Week. Aside from having to put up with a few one-sided, rapid-fire monologues and talk down some unrealistic notions, they are cute and manageable. This week’s obsession can easily be identified by walking through the house and noting things that Nigel has left out in various rooms – pincushion, scissors, thread. He has been sewing again. He had some leftover pelts from his Chimera project and turned one of them into a furry wallet. He also made a hat for Mrs. Brisby. I always thought she looked cold in that movie. Maybe Nigel thought that too, animal lover that he is. I just thank my lucky stars he’s not one of those kids that brings home all the strays!

Thinking Ahead

My younger son Aidan, who is twelve, has recently discovered Bob Marley. He found one of my CDs from my college days (when I first discovered Bob) and it was love at first listen. Aidan plays it day and night. He tells me that he likes the music, but also the lyrics. And I’ve noticed that, too. Aidan seems even calmer and more introspective than usual. What I hadn’t noticed was that Nigel had also started listening.

Last weekend the boys were very excited because The Day the Earth Stood Still was opening. They had recently seen the original and looked forward to comparing the new one to it. I told them that we’d wait until the following weekend so it wouldn’t be so crowded. Then I made the fatal mistake of writing on the calendar the day and time I hoped that I could take them to see it.  If it’s on the calendar, it’s in stone as far as Nigel is concerned. It’s going to happen. And usually, it does. But that morning the schools had scheduled an emergency 2-hour late start due to bad road conditions, and that threw everything off for the day. Because Aidan started school two hours later, I couldn’t go into work until two hours later. Consequently, I didn’t finish my work until two hours later than I normally do. By the time I got home, I could not do all I needed to do in time to go to the movies that evening, and we would go the following day, I announced.

Nigel got upset. “But it’s on the calendar!” he yelled and began breathing heavily through clenched teeth, eyes wild as he quickly went into meltdown mode. This was not good. I had plans with a friend later that evening (something I had planned to do after the movie), and if Nigel didn’t calm down, I wouldn’t be able to leave him. I tried reminding him about “Old Plan, New Plan.”  “That doesn’t work!” he yelled. He then took a wooden ruler and mutilated a piece of pizza with it. I could tell he was escalating. He went to the living room and broke one of my hand-painted pysanky eggs from relatives in Slovakia. I knew that my response was crucial – he wanted a reaction out of me, so I did not react. I calmly said, “Nigel, pick up those broken pieces and put them in the trash.” And I think he was a little surprised that I didn’t yell at him about the egg, so he actually cleaned it up. He resumed his verbal tirade, but at least he stopped being destructive. Then I had an idea. An alternative for him. It was a “New Plan,” but I didn’t want to call it that.

It was risky, because I didn’t want him to think that I was rewarding him for his behavior. But what I hoped to accomplish was to help motivate him to regulate his behavior himself. Some would call it a bribe. But God knows that when you have to change plans on an autistic teen, you better have an acceptable back-up plan.

I sat him down and tried to look into his wild eyes. “Nigel, here are your choices. You can be mad about not going to see the movie tonight, but that’s not going to make it happen. Or, you can calm down and come with me to the store to pick out a video rental and get some ice cream, and we’ll see The Day the Earth Stood Still tomorrow.” Then I got up and went to my room to get my boots and coat.

Aidan followed me into my room. He looked at me. “Why does he act that way?” he asked with concern and sadness in his voice. “Honey, it’s because the autism makes it hard for him to regulate his emotions and his behavior.”

“Then how is he going to take care of himself when he’s an adult?” Aidan asked in a sincere voice.

A chill ran through my body. I looked at him. “We don’t know if he will. But he’s learning; he’s trying. I think he’ll figure it out. And he can live with me as long as he needs to. So can you.”

I put my arm around him and we walked out into the hallway. Nigel was standing by the front door, with his shoes and coat on. I looked at his face, and the wildness was gone, replaced by a look that I couldn’t determine. Remorse? Gratitude? Maybe both. “I’m ready,” he said. “Okay, I’ll get my purse and keys,” I said. As I walked off, I heard Aidan quietly say to him, “I’m glad you were able to calm down.” And my heart filled with far too many emotions to identify.

A moment later, as I started the car, Nigel asked from the back seat, “Can we listen to ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’?”

“It’s called ‘Three Little Birds,'” Aidan said.

“Sure,” I said, inserting the CD. And then we all sang, even Nigel:

Don’t worry . . . about a thing . . . ‘cause every little thing . . . gonna be all right . . .

A Goonie Afternoon

Nigel’s Obsession of the Week, besides his impending Terminator Halloween costume, is the ‘80s movie The Goonies. He was introduced to this classic a few years ago and has loved it ever since. Being an extrovert, Nigel loves the friendship theme of the movie, and being autistic, he appreciates the befriending of the misunderstood, cognitively challenged character, Sloth. According to Urban Dictionary, “goonie” means “outcast” or “geek,” but also “good friend or homie.” Nigel considers himself a goonie.

After school today, he invited his NT friend Riley over to watch the movie with him. Nigel and Riley have been friends for six years, and I’m sure he has seen The Goonies with Nigel on several different occasions. Yet Riley comes over and hangs out, accepts the fact that Nigel talks and narrates throughout the movie, and just lets him be who he is. And of course, that is what good friends do. We all have our quirks, and some require a little more patience than others. But for a child, now a teen, to take it in his stride and recognize the needs of someone who’s different and care about him and spend time with him in spite of some pretty riotous quirks, well, simply put, I just love him.

They were in the kitchen at one point, taking a snack break, and I overheard Nigel say, “Do you think we’re like The Goonies? You know, friends in the same neighborhood having adventures?”

“Yeah, we are,” Riley said, biting into an apple.

“Because I’m a goonie, but you understand my difference.”

“Yeah, Nigel, I do.”

Sometimes, my heart just overflows.

Bored of the Rings

I love the Lord of the Rings movies, and so does my younger son, Aidan. We watch all three, marathon style, about twice a year. Aidan was around six when he first started watching them with me, and at first the Orcs bothered him a little, so he would hide his eyes when they came on. But he so enjoyed the rest of each of the movies that he put up with a little ugliness. And now, being a long-time gamer, he’s grown used to the Orcs. He loves the quest storyline and the main characters, especially Gollum, whom he tries to emulate in voice and action (only at home, much to my relief). He loves the sweeping cinematography and fantasy elements. He loves the ice cream we eat together while watching the DVDs.

But Nigel, movie lover that he is, has never shown more than a passing interest in the Lord of the Rings movies. I knew the Orcs bothered him too, but it was more than that. I think the whole fantasy element of those movies bores him. He only likes fictional characters that are in realistic settings, which is why he loves superhero movies. The Lord of the Rings, even though it was filmed in the natural world, is in a fantasy setting. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

He has put in his two cents, though. The last time Aidan and I were out in the living room watching the trilogy, Nigel walked through on his way to the kitchen, stopped briefly behind the couch and said in his deadpan voice, “I think Frodo’s searching for inner peace.” Tolkien literary analysis, in a nutshell.

Then he went to snag some leftover pizza.

It’s Who You Know

Being a movie lover, Nigel considers himself lucky to have a father and stepmother who work in the movie industry. Through his father, he met Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona and National Treasure get played a lot in our house) and watched him do an impromptu puppet show.  Nigel said he was very funny and nice.

Nigel has also been a long-time fan of Robin Williams. In fact, it was Mr. Williams’ performance as Genie in Aladdin that encouraged Nigel’s beginning communication through echolalia. Nigel went on to enjoy other Robin Williams movies, such as Popeye, Flubber, Hook, Toys, Mrs. Doubtfire, Robots, and Night at the Museum, which he has a poster of in his room. His all-time favorite, however, is Jumanji. So when his stepmother came home from work last week and announced that she was working on a film starring Robin Williams, Nigel, eyes wide, said, “Tell him I’m his biggest fan.” She did, and Mr. Williams, who has probably heard that a few times before, quipped, “Oh, did he take a poll?” and proceeded to personally autograph Nigel’s Jumanji DVD. When his stepmother brought it home for him, his dad said that Nigel’s eyes actually watered, and when I spoke to him about it on the phone today and asked Nigel how he felt to receive the autograph, he immediately said, “Ecstatic!” To me, that’s the best part about movies: helping autistic kids to try to communicate, and later, to identify their emotions. How great is that?


Any kid who loves a movie character will probably want to write a fan letter, and Nigel is no different. After beginning with Tigger (“Dear Tigger, jumps note, Piglet and Pooh”), Nigel progressed in one year to write, at age seven, the following letter:








He typed it on my computer one afternoon. I guess, not realizing that a sequel was in the works, Nigel figured that Peter Parker no longer needed the Spiderman suit now that the movie was filmed. And I guess Nigel thought that Green Goblin was pretty cool, too. Who can really know for sure what an autistic seven-year-old thinks? The number of words contained in this letter is far more than Nigel ever spoke at that age.  I remember being so glad that he had found a way to express himself, even if it was only about movies. At least they motivated him to write, and to communicate.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Something . . . strange, but amazing, happened today. I am still in a sort of daze about it.

I took the boys to see a movie this afternoon, as promised for cleaning their rooms. They wanted to see Ironman, and I wanted to see Prince Caspian, so I decided to try letting them be by themselves. Another exercise for me in trusting and letting go. There have been previous times when we’ve gone to see a movie together and the boys have sat on the opposite side of the theater from me, and there had been no problems, so I thought they would be okay this time with me in a different movie. I bought them a few snacks, walked them into their theater, instructed them not to leave the theater unless they had to go to the bathroom, told them to wait for me in the arcade if their movie finished first, gave them a few dollars for the arcade, and told them I’d be in theater 2 if there was an emergency.

About half-way through Prince Caspian, I became aware of two people standing at the foot of the theater stairs, looking up into the audience for someone. One of them, I realized as my heart jumped into my throat, was Nigel. The other appeared to be a theater manager. Adrenaline coursed through me and I began to shake, thinking that either something had happened to Aidan, or Nigel had done something to cause a problem. Why me? Why now? Why? I dreaded whatever that manager had to tell me.

I don’t know what my face must have looked like as we stepped into the foyer and I tried to ascertain the mood of the manager. I was full of fear. The manager introduced himself as Mr. Bitteck (I believe) and told me that Nigel had requested a tour of the theater, and that it was fine, but that he needed a parent to come with him. I was in shock. I had braced myself for either horrible news about Aidan or a confrontation about something Nigel had done. I felt a bizarre combination of relief that no one was hurt or causing problems and exasperation that Nigel had not followed my instructions about staying in the theater with Aidan. I asked the manager if we could do the tour after the movies were over, and he said of course. So I thanked him, told Nigel to go back to Ironman and to stay with Aidan, and I wobbled on rubbery legs back to my seat.

I am glad that I had the remainder of a movie to sit through to be able to sort out my thoughts and feelings. If I didn’t, I might have chastised Nigel for not following my instructions, and I can see now that it would not have been the right time to make an issue out of it. I realized, as tears formed in my eyes during a battle scene of Prince Caspian, that Nigel had actually done something amazing. He went after a dream. He thought of something that he really wanted to do, and on his own he asked around to find someone who could help him. He has always loved movies. I just didn’t realize how much.

After the movie ended, I came out to the lobby and found the boys waiting for me. We asked the ticket taker to page the manager, and he came out and led us on an incredible tour of the projection rooms of the 15-screen movie theater (Cinemark Tinseltown). It was phenomenal. Apparently they only do this when certain individuals request it, and it had been a while since the last time anyone had. I was so impressed by Mr. Bitteck’s professionalism and his acceptance of Nigel as Nigel interjected the tour with trivia about film history involving Thomas Edison and the kinetoscope, the Lumiere brothers, and even the role of Nichola Tesla‘s work. Occasionally I would gently remind him, discreetly near his ear, “Let’s listen to Mr. Bitteck,” and he did. Nigel commented that he was excited to see a “piece of history,” and Mr. Bitteck confirmed that it was indeed just that. Within two years, the theater would be going completely digital. He also took us to an area where they splice the film and, at Nigel’s request, demonstrated how the machine worked. Nigel asked for a sample of the film and Mr. Bitteck offered to give him the spool of film for an entire trailer!! Nigel said, “I feel like I won the Kentucky Derby!” I tried not to cry.

We came out of the theater to a gorgeous sunset of purple, orange, and pink. Like the heavens were smiling with us. I drove home almost in a trance. I reveled in the wonder of what my son had accomplished, and what I had experienced because of him. I wished I could remember all the things I learned and all the things Mr. Bitteck had told us. Later, after dinner, I told Nigel that I was proud of him for doing something that was important to him. But then I quietly described to him how afraid I was in the middle of the movie when I saw him with the manager and I didn’t know what it was about. I think Nigel understood. He looked at me, and in the most sincere voice said, “Sorry.” And I hugged him and thanked him. Then he gave me a five-inch length of the film from his trailer. I will keep it forever, probably even frame it.

Last weekend I saw a really good local R & B band called Annie Mac, and in one of their songs, the vocalist sings, “If you want something, you gotta ask.” Nigel asked for something that he wanted. At one point during the tour, he turned to Mr. Bitteck and said, “This is the greatest moment of my life!” I hadn’t told Mr. Bitteck that Nigel had autism because I didn’t think it needed to be mentioned. But I believe he knew that he was in the presence of an exceptional kid. I couldn’t thank him enough.

Mr. Association

Nigel’s language development has always intrigued me. I have written previously about his use of echolalia to communicate and how it progressed through different stages over the years (stages that I identified and labeled on my own: please note that they are not “official”). The teachers and therapists who have worked with him at various times, especially in the early years, but even now, have often commented on his ability to take lines from videos and use them within the context of a situation.

Nigel has always loved the Disney movies, especially the animated ones, but at the age of five he began watching some of the live-action films. He loved The Swiss Family Robinson, and still does. One day, his behavioral therapist, unaware that he had been watching that movie at home, told me that when Nigel got angry at her he had said, “It’s my gun, you’ve got no right to take it!” Imagine the awkwardness as I tried to explain to her that he had taken that line from a movie. I wonder if she was thinking that I routinely left guns laying around the house and reprimanded my children when they picked one up. The movie scene in question was when the older brother took the younger brother’s gun away from him, and the younger brother was angry about it. Nigel said the line as a way to indicate that he was angry about being told to do something he didn’t want to do. When I explained the movie scene to Nigel’s therapist, I could see the relief wash over her face. Then she said, “I understand now! That’s part of why we call him ‘Mr. Association,’ because he’s so good at associating things like that.” 

Quoting lines from videos is no longer Nigel’s primary means of communication, although he still likes to do it occasionally. He also likes to take words or phrases that he remembers from movies, TV shows, or something he picks up online, and try to use them appropriately. Sometimes he is successful with this, other times not. Today during homeschool, while working on subtracting mixed numbers, he did it seamlessly.

Nigel: I don’t want to do subtraction. It’s not really my bag.

Me: Cleaning cat vomit off the carpet is not really my bag, but it still needs to be done.

I think he got the picture.