When I started this journey with Johnny and Autism, I was so wrapped up in the whole getting him to talk and to play with toys “properly” that I think I put the social communication piece on the back burner. I think I felt that if we could get talking started then the interactions would start. In the very least any behavioral challenges we were having would be more or less alleviated because Johnny could communicate more effectively and not be so frustrated all the time. That is what the speech pathologists kept telling us and we went with it thinking that speech would solve everything. The interesting thing is in the end it all comes back to the most important thing of all with Autism and that is the social challenges.
We all communicate in many ways throughout the day whether it’s verbally or nonverbally but we learn from a very young age by making a lot of little mistakes as we navigate a social minefield what the social expectations are. Some of our friends become really good at reading somebody’s facial expressions, looking for a look that might pass over someone’s face when they’re uncomfortable are about to tell a lie and some of her friends get good at reading body language annoying when somebody’s being fake.
Well what would you do if none of this was easy to learn? What if every single time a person came up to you you were going through in your mind trying to match up the social interaction it’s happening in front of you to whole bunch of previous interactions trying to figure out if this is something that’s happened before so that you can figure out what to say and what to do.
I understand a little bit of this because when I grew up I was so shy. When I was by myself I would think about what to say when I was going to be visiting my cousins and Aunts and Uncles but then when I’d be in front of them I would just want to hide behind my Daddy’s legs. I would try to think of five things that were special that it happened to me so that when a family member would ask and try to get me to talk about my life, school, friends etc. that I have something interesting to say. I would try to prepare myself so I wouldn’t feel so awkward and stress out if someone talked to me. Then my social anxiety would rise and my mind would go blank and I would not know what to say. What would help is if an adult was patient and would try to ask me questions to draw me out so I could start talking.
I thought it would get better as I got older but it seemed to get worse especially when I tried to be with my friends and talk they would be more interested in talking about their lives. I discovered that kids are not so patient as adults and would not wait to see what I had to say and move on to another topic. Many years later I would be out for drinks for dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time would joke about how I was always such a good listener and never had a lot to say. That wasn’t true. I just didn’t feel like anyone really wanted to listen to what I had to say. I know now that it was not true but when you are shy you need the motivation to have courage and take a risk to talk. For me what helped was when I started working and had a good sales retail jobs because it forced me to talk to people and to interact. But because I didn’t know these people and it was a job I could pretend if you will and just be a “sales clerk.” I have to say that really helped me out of my shell and make me a much more interactive and socially interactive person. I could take what I learned in the in the job area and transfer that to my private life when I was interacting with my friends and be more outgoing.
So all of those life experiences are what I think about when my son who has Autism is plunged into these social interactions. But unlike all the other children at school he actually gets judged by his teachers on how well he is doing in this regard. It’s actually a page in his IEP because of Autism. I understand how important it is to help him with interactions at a young age that I am uncomfortable with the fact that seven out of 10 times he has to engage a peer or an adult. When I’m at school there are children that would definitely fail making these goals. One of the things in special-education that I think that they miss the beat on is if they’re going to put these goals in front of special needs children then all children at school have to have these goals. Its through peer to peer interactions that children learn best. But if you bring this up in a meeting they will tell you that of course these goals are for the other children it’s an expectation of all the other children and it’s a day today thing. But because your child has an identification (which means a disability) the expectation is they need to teach it to them and it has to be tracked. We have endeavoured to nuance that to engaging in social interactions and not to just show eye contact but to show someone communication body language by orientating his body towards them. By taking the pressure off to speak the fringe benefit is more communication with gentle prodding.
My new goal is to instead that they coach him in the social interactions and also coach the children on what is happening in terms of Autism with Johnny so that they can be better friends and helpers with him so that they’ll learn together how to navigate the social minefield of growing up. I don’t want running records kept on how much interacting at school but instead be evaluated on how many times that he speaks up in class, has friendships and how happy he is at school at the end of the day. At the same time as Johnny works so very hard every day to navigate the social sphere of Grade 3, I want the children and adults to meet him half way. We can only hope right?
A super good source on Facebook and twitter is The Little Black Duck. Education slide on Communication and Autism credit to * the little black duck www.thelittleblackduck.com.au