29/03/2011

Portraits of Autism #17

I set out to write this piece two days ago, and ended up ranting about the under-diagnosis of Asperger's sydrome in girls. So yes, I was going to write about a young girl I'd met the other day at Max's centre. She and her sister.

She is pretty, with short black curls and a thin straight nose, which together with her almond shaped eyes give her a look of a sarcophagus painting of a Greek woman I've seen at the Louvre. Her thick lashes hide cover up her side-way glances. She's dressed meticulously with white tights, black mary-jane shoes, a denim skirt, and a frilly shirt. She looks about twelve, maybe thirteen. She came in with her younger sister. The same nose, the same eyes, the same clothing. The hair is longer. I surmise that smoothing thick curly hair on an autistic child who's bound to have sensory issues may not be the mother's idea of fun.

The younger girl looks about ten. She walks in the waiting room, confidently, and guides her sister to a vacant chair next to mine. She sits her down, gently, plunks a great big black handbag on her lap and asks her to wait while she goes and looks for the teacher. The other girl sits, quietly, for a few seconds. Shyly she raises her eyes, takes in her surroundings, and decides she can't stay. She gets up to follow her sister, leaving the bag behind. Within seconds the younger girl is back to fetch the bag. She shows no sign of impatience.

There's another woman in the room. She's with a boy of 5 or so. Together they're waiting for another boy about Max's age. The small boy has very short, shaved hair. He looks like a tiny thug. He's dressed like a little man too, as some boys from more traditional families sometimes are. When the girls come back in the room the mother calls the younger one over. How old are you? she asks. Where do you live? Is your mother coming to pick you up? The girl answers dutifully, casting a frequent eye on her sister as she speaks.

The small boy is playing with a jigsaw puzzle on a table by the window. The little girl goes to stand behind him, shyly. When he struggles she tries to show him where the piece goes. I'm not sure if she wants him to finish so she can play or if she wants to be included. Either way I'm relieved she still has time to play. She's not just her sister's minder. She's still a child.

The bigger girl is seating quietly. She seems much more peaceful when she knows her sister is in the room. Occasionally she glances at me, or rather at my paraphernalia of pink electronics and writing things. The glances last a quarter of a second, but I know she's here, I know she's taking me in.

Her sister is coming back to her now. I was wrong, she wasn't waiting so she could play. She's brought the jigsaw back to her sister. She sits besides her and shows her the picture in the middle. Look, she says. There's a rabbit here. And a flower. It's pink. And look at the tree in the corner. Do you see it? Do you like it? She's keeping her voice low, even. The older sister responds, a quiet 'yes' at the end of each question. She seems torn between wanting to please her sister and staying focussed on keeping the noisy surroundings out. Her sister knows that, and her questions soon stop. The two girls sit in companionable silence until it is time to go.





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