In documentary Love, Hope & Autism, Fraser exhibits several behaviours that are typical of people with autism. As unusual as these behaviours are, they are often ways to communicate or cope with a situation.
Stimming. Autistic people are sometimes seen jumping around, flapping their arms, spinning or engaging in other repetitive behaviours. This is called “stimming” or self-stimulating behaviour and appears to be how they manage stress and anxiety. Stimming can be quite gentle, like Fraser’s habit of continually tossing one sock in the air. It can also be very dramatic – like Fraser’s explosive first meeting with the film crew when very energetic stimming didn’t work to prevent a meltdown!
Meltdowns. Meltdowns happen when a person with autism becomes overwhelmed. They can look like temper tantrums but they’re not the same. They’re about sensory overload, not an attempt to get one’s way. They can happen with or without an audience and autistic children don’t outgrow them.
Sensory sensitivities. A person with autism can be over or under-sensitive in their sensory perceptions. As a young boy, Fraser was very sensitive to both light and sound and sometimes wore sunglasses and headphones, even around the house. His mom Shannon remembers: “Having the television on and people talking in the same room would send him into screaming agony.” Fraser wore ear protection when he had to be in a noisy environment, even when the environment was otherwise very pleasurable – like a Christmas concert or birthday party. Fraser somehow taught himself to better manage noisy or bright environments. When he was 11 years old, Fraser took off his headphones and rarely wears them anymore.
Proprioception (body awareness). Some autistic people may not have a very good idea of where they are in space. Fraser’s mom Shannon describes what she sees: “He needs to jump, flap his hands, make sounds, punch a fist into his other palm, squeeze his wrists, etc. to give his body the stimulus to identify where his limbs are and what they’re doing. Otherwise, he just feels as though he’s floating in space, his body melting and disappearing one piece at a time in a continual cycle. One of the reasons he loves being underwater is that it gives him even pressure and he can feel his body as a whole, something he can’t do when he’s out of the water.”
Interoception (sensitivity to body sensations like hunger and thirst, touch, pain). In the film Love, Hope & Autism, Fraser accidentally falls off a cliff and is seriously injured. Afterwards, the hospital staff went easy on pain medication, since Fraser wasn’t expressing discomfort. Fraser’s mom had to explain that he has trouble communicating that he’s feeling pain and may even have trouble identifying the sensation to himself. Learn more from a person with ASD who can describe what it’s like.
Food & gastro-intestinal issues. People with autism often have an uneasy relationship with food and digestion. Children may refuse to eat all but a small number of foods and often have gastro-intestinal disorders, like chronic diarrhea or constipation. In Fraser’s case, he had problems feeding as an infant and is still picky about what he eats.This, together with Fraser’s interoception, means constant vigilance is a necessity.
Time perception. People with autism often have difficulty grasping abstract concepts like time and need support organizing their day. Fraser’s mom needs to remind her 20-year-old son what day it is, what time he needs to leave to get on the bus, even which day in August is his birthday. In Fraser’s case, his concept of time also has a magical quality to it because he believes that it’s possible to time travel.
Based on information from The National Autistic Society, Autism Speaks and Shannon Wray (Fraser’s mom).