One of the key things with children and adults with autism – is that people are “scary”. I say “scary” in the sense that our kids may not be typically afraid, as some of ours can be downright gutsy (ever had your kid scale cupboards or want to climb every tree in sight?). But in the sense that people are too hard, difficult, challenging, UNPREDICTABLE, demanding, subtle, loud, give them things they don’t want, take away things they do want, expect responses, expect them to do things a certain way…… And the list goes on.
It’s all too much for a child on the spectrum, who sees and processes the world differently than we do. Than neurotypicals do. It’s like asking a Mac to process Windows commands. Like a left-hander forced to write with his right. Asking a bird to swim, or a fish to walk…
When you ask a child on the spectrum to jump, she doesn’t ask “how high?” She wants to dance instead. Or she wonders, “why should I jump? It doesn’t serve any purpose, it doesn’t make sense!”
For a child on the spectrum, doing something just for the sake of pleasing others, just to fulfill a request, is foreign. Sure, you can “force” them, put your hand over theirs for guidance, make them do the same thing over and over again until they get that they HAVE TO do it… But where is the intrinsic pleasure in that? What about the child’s desires and wants? Where is his/her autonomy, sense of self? What about the child feeling good about herself, and ultimately, about you?
The challenge is actually for us to retune OUR minds. To check our beliefs about why we think this is wrong. To wonder what it means to respect a child. When we stop trying to correct their behavior, and instead do our best to UNDERSTAND our kids. To appreciate how their mind works, to become more predictable and less threatening. To respond to our kids when THEY decide to interact with us. Not demanding that they to respond to us. To love and accept them unconditionally – – without the heavy cloud of expectation. To not judge what they do.
That’s when the magic happens. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually, our kids will see people as less and less “scary”. After some time they may start seeing people as friendly, even. Non-threatening. Helpful. Playful. Fun!
Little Star is realising this slowly. Together with our wonderful team of volunteers (4-5 now), we do our relationship-based play therapy 20-25 hrs a week. It sounds intensive, but play therapy is gentle and loving. It can also be boisterous and crazy. But always, always child led. The relationship and bond with the child is the most important aspect of the therapy. At the Son-rise courses, it was grilled into our minds that if we feel that what we are doing will hurt this connection, don’t do it. That is why these kinds of therapies are called relationship-based.
For every child, the time it takes to gain that trust varies – first in you, then generalised to others. But you will see the manifestations. For us, the very first thing was eye contact. Little Star looked at us more, at what we do, to see what we will do next. Gazed at us while we sing nursery rhymes. She also smiled and laughed with us alot more. Then she began giving and showing affection. Hugs, kisses, cuddles. Lately, she is affectionate with our volunteers and speech therapist. More recently, she has even been interested in friends we haven’t met in a long time – looking at their faces, touching their hair.
She also initiates little games and plays. She pulls my hand to open spaces to dance. She wants to jump with our volunteers. This past week she is initiating vocal imitation games, which previously showed no interest. Now she would make a particular sound, and look at us in the eyes with a big smile, waiting for us to make it back to her 🎶 when we do, she laughs and giggles, and makes another sound. Perfect because there is so much to grow from here. And her interactive attention span for this game is amazing.
Now that Little Star finds people less scary, she is more responsive. She also pays attention, because maybe now she feels our requests are less threatening. Her receptive language has grown so much. She understands when I say, “Let’s dance!” and pulls me to an open space to twirl and jump. She responds and understands when I explain things to her.
All this takes time. We respect our child’s timeline for growth. We wait for her to initiate the interactions. And all the while we build stronger relationships and connections with Little Star. And everyday, we learn a little more from her.