A few months ago, I met a woman named Melissa at a reading in New York City. She told me about her son Quentin, who has a surprising affinity: corporate logos. One of the first Autism Affinities Project posts was a video Melissa sent me of Quentin in their family’s kitchen, and I have continued to come to know him through the incisive blog Melissa writes about their life together, The iQ Journals: Adventures in Autism, Media, and Technology with a Boy Named Quentin. Today, I’d like to repost a piece Melissa wrote in April about a recent family vacation. Being uprooted can be difficult for any autistic child (even if they are a Disney fan headed to Disney World!), and Quentin’s affinity ultimately helped him “unlock” that message.
This past week was Spring Break for my children. Like so many other American parents, we ventured to take our children on a little vacation. This is the first real trip we’ve taken since our very successful trip last summer. And this is not the first time that I’ve noted that Quentin’s logo obsession seems to have an uptick on vacation. However, this time, the attachment to naming logos seemed to be at its all-time high, and it came with a lot of negative energy on Quentin’s part.
We were visiting my parents in Sarasota, Florida. This is a place that my children have been before, albeit not for a long time. I did not do nearly as much prep for this vacation as I have in the past. I did not make a social story about it, for example. Or show him any pictures that resembled a schedule. Quentin knew that we were going on an airplane, as we told him over and over again and he would get excited. But, I think he was unprepared for the week due to a lack of social story explaining who we were seeing and what we would be doing. (Of course, I understand this now in retrospect, but was too busy before the trip to do anything about it.) I am now beginning to think that his demands for naming logos throughout the trip were most likely a response to being out of routine. They came with a kind of anger and sadness.
First, let’s start with the obvious. There are a LOT of logos between New York City and Sarasota. We’ve got the car ride to the airport – filled with logos of stores and shops, signs, etc. Then there’s the airport itself, filled with airline logos, food vendors and newsstands. You would think we’d get some peace once we were in the air, but then there’s the fabulous televisions behind every seat on JetBlue, where Quentin had free reign to change the channels to find more. Even the information card in the seat pocket is filled with logos of snacks and drinks. Once we landed, Quentin had the gleeful experience of seeing every car rental logo known to man at the Tampa airport, followed by a car ride to display all finest logos from Tampa to Sarasota. When there were no logos around, Quentin would read the makes and models of the cars on the highway next to us. It was a long trip of logo-reading.
Let me be more explicit about what happens when Quentin sees a logo. First, he points and reads it. Then he keeps repeating the words until someone else repeats it back to him. If nobody repeats the logo (or words) back, he often has a tantrum. So if we are in the car, for example, it’s impossible to have a family conversation at all. Quentin dominates our family car rides. We sometimes let a tantrum ride itself out just to share important information, but otherwise, Quentin dominates our togetherness. It leaves us all very exasperated.
Here’s what it looked like while we were driving around. (Click here if you don’t see the video below.) Fiona helped him by repeating the logos he saw, to the best of her ability. As you can see, his words are not always easy to understand.
Usually, it was not this peaceful. Quentin was more agitated. When we arrived in Florida and it got late, he said to me, “I want home.” My heart sank. It’s at this point that I realized he didn’t understand that we were on a vacation at all. He didn’t realize that we traveled all day and we would be sleeping there, for several nights. He went to bed very upset that night.
Throughout the week, the logo-naming increased. He found them throughout my parents’ home, especially on their widescreen TV. He also started to spout logo names sporadically, without even seeing them. “Clorox,” he would say to me, with perfect eye contact, waiting for a response. “Clorox,” I would say. He would counter with, “Pringles,” again waiting for my response. “Pringles,” I would say. For Quentin, this is typical back-and-forth conversation. We could go several rounds of brand names before he got tired or distracted.
I noticed that he kept saying, “24 hour locksmith” a lot. This is not really a logo, but a group of words. It is familiar to everyone in our family, because comes from a sticker that someone slapped on the buzzer of our apartment in Brooklyn; it must have been placed there by an eager locksmith ready to make some money if someone accidentally got locked out. Quentin adores that sticker and reads it every time we leave or re-enter our building. It’s one of those phrases that we are asked to repeat all the time for Quentin, so we all sort of tune it out. But this time, on vacation, Quentin asked for us to say this logo a lot. Slowly, eventually… it occurred to me what Quentin was actually trying to communicate. When I figured it out, I confronted him about it. “Yes, I hear you: ’24 hour locksmith.’ That’s on the front of our building in Brooklyn. Does this mean you want to go back home, Quentin?” “Yes,” he replied quickly. He had no other way to say it, so he was saying it with a logo.
The vacation was not all about logos, of course. Quentin did experience some very happy moments during our time there. One of those happy moments was going on the “Air Grover” roller coaster in Busch Gardens. Fiona and Quentin went on that roller coaster several times; they have a shared joy of roller coasters.
Quentin also loves to swim; we enjoyed the pool several times while we were there.
While there were some joyful moments, Quentin always came back to his logos during our trip. They are predictable – a known entity for him. When we arrived at home at the end of our vacation, Quentin seemed very relieved. The need for logo-reading and repetition slowed down. He could relax in his familiar surroundings and enjoy our home again.
I am learning that Quentin uses logos to communicate ideas he cannot really say. He holds on to them as comfort. He sees them as familiar friends in places that are unfamiliar. I am constantly trying to experience them as he does. They are not just words and symbols that advertise; they evoke feelings or places or times for him. I am trying to learn his language, just as he is trying to learn mine.
Update: Since originally posting this, Melissa has compiled an amazing list of key moments in her understanding of Quentin’s affinity. Check it out here!