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Autism and Spontaneous or Voluntary Behavior

By Portia Iversen

A compelling description of the possible impact of autism on spontaneous behavior. This description of struggling with spontaneous or voluntary behavior is excerpted from the book, Strange Son by Portia Iversen, which tells the story of Tito, a highly intelligent boy with autism.

Today I watched Tito sitting on the couch in the small living room doing nothing in particular when suddenly he bolted up and ran into the kitchen and stood inches from his mother's face, making urgent sounds. "What's he doing?" I inquired, joining them. "He heard me unwrap the cookie package," Soma chuckled. Tito was transfixed by the package of cookies she held in her hand. "Tito, go sit down. I will bring it to you," Soma commanded, and Tito returned to the couch. Soma brought out the cookies and tea and immediately gave Tito several cookies that he began to shove into his mouth.

Soma wanted to show me something. She was trying to teach Tito to "will himself" to do things, she explained. She hoped that the same approach that had succeed in getting him to ride a trike, eat with a spoon, and write with a pencil could lead to Tito taking control of his behavior.

Soma stood up and moved into a position off to the side, a short distance from where Tito sat cross-legged on the couch. "Tito!" His head turned in her direction. "Will yourself to go to the kitchen!" I had seen him do that just moments earlier, I thought to myself.

Never removing his eyes from her, Tito clumsily pointed at his nose. "NO!" she shouted. Tito began rocking, staring at his mother. "What do we do first?" She implored. "We get UP!" she instructed, sweeping her arms upward. Tito, eyes still glued to her, rose from the couch to a sitting position. "What do we do next?" she demanded, as he stood frozen, looking at her for the next clue. "We step forward!" she shouted, pantomiming a big walking step. And slowly, through dozens of such commands and demonstrations, one excruciating step at a time, Tito did walk into the kitchen. Thought I would hardly say he had "willed" himself to do so. In fact, what I had just witnessed reminded me more of the Golem of Jewish folklore than anything else; the monster made of clay that would do Man's bidding but could not think for himself.

It dawned on me that I'd seen the same sort of thing in Dow before. Just as Tito could bound like a gazelle into the kitchen, [my son] Dov could pick up the tiniest string with perfect precision and yet he could not hold a pencil in his hand, much less write with it. Dov also made lots of nonword sounds, in fact he spontaneously produced even sound needed for spoken language - yet he could not use the sounds to speak. When I asked him to immediately reproduce a sound he had just made spontaneously, it came out unintelligible, in a hoarse, whispery voice. Dov could not voluntarily reproduce the very sound he had made spontaneously, only seconds earlier. This was not a problem of motor skills, it was a problem of what organized and drove behavior.

A fundamental question had begun to form in my mind since getting to know Tito: if Tito was not retarded, if he had language and could communicate, if he had emotions and even empathy - then what was autism?

What remained was a constellation of out-of-control behaviors, some repetitive, some impulsive, some obsessive And the inability to generate voluntary behavior.

The good news, I supposed, was that if you could eliminate retardation language deficits, and lack of emotion from the equations, then theoretically at least, autism ought to be a lot easier to figure out than we'd previously imagined.

Yet what I had just witnessed made me feel anything but hopeful.


Portia Iversen is the author of Strange Son, the story of her search to understand autism and to find a cure for her son through the vehicle of a young autistic Indian boy, Tito. Although he is basically nonverbal, Tito confides his extremely intelligent self observations via the keyboard. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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