Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Living on the edge

Spend enough time with Oliver and you will come to find out that the boy likes to live life on the edge. Literally. If we are walking down a sidewalk he will position himself so that he can touch whatever wall or fence is adjacent. In the woods he will walk with one foot on the path, one foot in the forest. If there is a ledge or berm or line, he will walk as close to it as possible. I've known this about him for years but while we were on vacation I began really paying attention and I learned something new about how Oliver navigates life.

Going places with Oliver is relatively easy these days. He smiles easily, seems to understand so much more of the world around him and is just, generally, an easy-going kid. But he still needs quite a lot of help and support because he can sometimes be impulsive and often will do things that might be considered inappropriate or that make me uncomfortable. So I am hyper-vigilant when we are out in public and I rarely let him stray out of my arm's reach so that I can reign him in if necessary. One thing, for example, that has often perplexed me and caused some stress is that Oliver is very likely to walk straight into other people. For instance, if we are walking down a street or an aisle at the supermarket and someone is advancing towards us from another direction, Oliver will visibly change course so that it would seem he is trying to collide with the other person. It stresses me out and confuses the other person -- why is this kid banging into me when the whole street is otherwise empty?

In Switzerland there are many streets closed to automobile traffic and lined with outdoor cafes, people sitting close-by to foot traffic, sipping their coffees. We spent a lot of time walking these streets and I began to notice a pattern. No matter how often I re-directed Oliver, he would always try to change course and walk straight to these clusters of unsuspecting people or towards the nearest pedestrian coming our way. It frazzled my nerves. I wanted to give him the freedom to walk independently but often found that it was easier to take his hand. When I had his hand he walked comfortably beside me.

But after taking so many pictures of Oliver keeping to the outermost edge of the environment, it suddenly dawned on me that he probably wasn't trying to collide with those people at all, he was trying to anchor himself by aiming towards the next closest thing in a moving world.

I tested my little hypothesis a few times to see what would happen if I didn't re-direct him and sure enough, he simply brushed by the advancing person and continued on his merry way down the street. I would love to simply be able to relax now that I've figured this out -- and wow! It feels like such an important insight -- but I can't let him go around letting him constantly brushing against people and things all the time. Even in the woods this was a problem: the paths that we hiked regularly were all crowded by stinging nettles -- I've never seen so many! So every time I saw Oliver veering towards the side of the path (constantly) I had to remind him to stick to the middle. It was frustrating for both of us.

Oliver is almost seven and he's been doing this for almost as long as I can remember. Finally figuring this out -- putting two and two together -- feels a little bittersweet. I can't believe it has taken me so long!!! It also makes me wonder how different Oliver's perceptions of space must be from my own and what I can do to help him feel more comfortable navigating the world.

Ideas anyone?


  1. I can relate to this so closely especially after just spending a fortnight in England. In the States in our neighbourhood we're unincorporated which means no sidewalks, but in England the pavements have pavements and curb stones which as such a visual lure that my older son walks right on the edging curb stone [and mowes everybody down in his way] despite the wobbles and the close proximity to traffic.........what a long journey.

  2. Hmm, this is a puzzle and it does feel like an important insight. To some degree, Sam does this too. Does Oliver like to carry things in his hands? Maybe if he were to carry something with a little heft in one of his hands it might help center him. Or could it be a vision/brightness thing, maybe a baseball cap would help? I don't know, but let us know what you discover!

  3. Anonymous11:22 AM

    i relate to this. fluffy does a similar thing. to my mind, it's sensory-related, the whole notion of where am i? and how do i find out? by finding the boundaries, by brushing up against the whole, the wall, the fence, that person. what i've noticed is that sensory meals regularly spaced throughout the day help. sensory everything. they seem to be slowly giving fluffy a sense of himself from the inside out, so that he needs to brush against the external less and less since he's connecting with his own internal spaces more and more.

  4. Ok, random and out of left field here but hear me out...
    1. Has Oliver ever had a functional vision assessment? I'm not talking about acuity (20/20, etc.) but about how he actually *sees* things. Depth perception, convergence, how his eyes do or don't track synchronously, etc.
    2. Does he seek a lot of vstibular input? Hanging upside down, spinning, swinging, water, etc?

    We've learned (and finaly had a professional confirm this) that Nik's vestibular system drives all the other senses...including vision and depth perception. As we give Nik tons of input (in our case, swimming every day lately), there's been a marked increase in his balance, his desire to explore, and there's even been more "language" and vocalization than ever before!

    But, if he hasn't had a vision assessment, that's a good place to start, too. It may be as simple as his eyes are sending confusing/conflicting/unclear messages to his brain so he has to orient himself by being at the edge of something where he can touch or see a boundary.

    Or, I could be totally off base! Either way, I hope you figure it out. :-)

  5. Walking along a row of beach lockers this afternoon, I watched as Andrew walked close to the edge and dragged his fingers along the lockers as he did.

    I agree that it is a vision thing. Another thing I want to try again is the vision therapy and prism lenses. Remember I tried years ago with Andrew, but he would never keep the glasses on? Might look into it again though.

    I have to say that after Andrew gets knocked around from the waves for a while, he walks by my side very differently, more "normal".

    Oh, and the bumping into other people?, we have that too. He will grab onto strangers in the ocean to sort of anchor himself once and a while and I watch the look of horror on some of these strangers faces.

  6. That's fascinating. I had the same thought KAL had - would holding something give him a sense of groundedness? Maybe a walking stick?