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Free ebooks ==> Zachary 55 bally express their anxiety in ways that enable parents to recognize it as such, or to identify the true source of the anxiety. Although Zachary had good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, there were still lots of examples of his difficulties in the social use of language to navigate his way through the world. I had a lot of trouble understanding what Zachary was talking about during our interview. He would bring up all kinds of people and topics without supplying a shared context for the conversation, in a sense engaging us and not engaging us in this conversation. Although I had never heard of most of the people he referred to, he seemed to have little appreciation that I might need some contextual information. The distinction between monologue and conversation was a tenuous one for Zachary. He made no concessions to the listener. Perhaps there is a connection between this difficulty in the use of language to navigate the social world and its ability to modulate anxiety. It is possible that his language skills could not be harnessed by his executive function skills to help him be aware of a listener’s needs in conversation or to think of other coping mechanisms, of imagining another way of dealing with change. He cannot tell himself that it is of no use to worry about death because it won’t happen to me, at least not yet. He cannot tell himself these sorts of lies. Instead, Zachary’s way of dealing with anxiety was to ask the same questions over and over again. This was unsettling and very trying for his mother. But for Zachary to be momentarily reassured, he had to ask the same set of questions over and over again, and Angela had to answer them in exactly the same way. The questioning became a verbal ritual, a means of warding off change. It represented his refusal to accept disorder. He must have felt that he was superimposing a whole different type of order over this anxiety—that repeated questions and the ritual of asking them were in and of themselves a type of predictability that supplied what the inevitability of change and death took away. I could see this most clearly during the interview. Zachary had his set of lines to speak, and his mother had her set of lines. She had to deliver them in precisely the same way. It was the repetition, the ritual of asking the same question, that was momentarily comforting to Zachary, not the answers. It felt like Zachary, his mother, and I were in a little play. Zachary was both playwright and director. When I entered the theater, I too had my lines to deliver and my questions to ask. I was both actor and audience (certainly not the director). The play was a ritualistic reenactment of the anxiety of death expressed through the problem of change and replacement.

56 A MIND APART The relationship between ritual and theater is an old one, dating back thousands of years. Experiencing this conversation with Zachary and his mother reminded me that many of the earliest tragedies were attempts by the Greeks to understand death and how continuity was possible in a world where people die with some regularity. The audience knew the plays very well. The emotional power of the play was not in seeing how it ended, but in seeing it again and again. Repetition and ritual were at the heart of the healing power of the theater—and of religion for that matter. Zachary was, in a real sense, a part of that tradition. Seeing this analogy between the experience of children with ASD— their anxiety about resistance to change—and the theater gave me a better understanding of the role of the repetitive questioning and the meaning of ritual as ways of dealing with death—or, in this case, the problem of change and replacement. My guess was that his grandmother’s illness had made Zachary aware of the potential for his world to fall apart, for structure and order to disappear. The terrible teasing at school only reinforced his sense of not belonging and his isolation. The repetition was Zachary’s way of supplying the structure and order that death threatens. He was using language to deal with the anxiety, but because of his disability it took the form of repetitive questioning. This verbal ritual and the need for reassurance about replacement helped him to cope and reestablish order. But the added misfortune was that Zachary could not leave the theater; he could not put down the script and think of something else. As well as language, we also use distraction to deal with anxiety and change. We find things to distract ourselves—music, a good book, a brisk walk, or a pleasant meal. Zachary does not have the gift of distracting himself. Instead, he returns again and again to the source of his anxiety. His nostalgia for a perfect world is insatiable. The ritual and repetition are momentarily comforting; asking questions assuages his fear of change for that instant, but then it returns again and again. For Zachary the healing power of this form of ritual is incomplete. He cannot let go of his anxiety. The ability to focus intensively on certain topics is both a gift and a curse. As a gift, it allows children with ASD to develop an extraordinary knowledge about cars, Braille, bumblebees, thunderstorms. But when the topic provokes anxiety, the gift becomes a curse. Children and adolescents with ASD cannot leave the danger of change alone and must return again and again to the source of their fear. Our denial in the face of loss of order is very helpful. The ability to