A year later, I've educated myself. I probably read more about autism daily than most people read in their lives. This sums up my philosophy pretty perfectly.
So what have I learned in the last year? What can I share with you about how to interact with Flynn or others with autism? Here are a few lessons I've taken away. Some of these apply to neuro-typical kids as well, but for kids on the spectrum they can be absolutely critical.
- Be quiet.
You know those teachers and direct care workers whose voices dominate the whole room? The ones who are always so excited to see your kids in the morning? "Flynn!!! Great to see you this morning!" they exclaim. Flynn shrinks against me and buries his face in the side of my leg. If he could sink through the floor, it's clear he would.
I just want to shake these folks. Why are you still talking to him like this when his response has been consistently negative for nearly a year? Even after a week you should be changing your approach. I know you're an enthusiastic, energetic person - that's great. Most kids probably love you for it. But if a kid responds poorly on a consistent basis, maybe stop it?
For Flynn, loud is bad. Transitions are bad. Talking to people is hard. Greeting him is great, but please try to be calm and quiet. Don't immediately demand his attention and ask for complex social interactions that are extremely challenging for him. Let him settle in before you go there.
- Pleasantries get ignored.
Scene: Every morning in the hallway on our way in to school.
Annoying art teacher: *stands in front of us* "Hi Flynn!!! How are you this morning?!?"
Flynn: Fails completely to respond.
Me: "Oh, hi. He's fine, thanks." *walks around her*
If I ask him how he's feeling after he's been awake for some time and had time to adjust to conversation, he'll usually say something like, "Pretty good!" It's adorable, because he really considers the question seriously and wants to give me an honest answer. Because literalism. Flynn still doesn't understand that some things are said merely for social posturing.
Shifting attention is a big effort for a lot of kids on the spectrum. If Flynn is focused on something else (like getting to class without melting down) and you say something benign (to you) like "what's up?" or "how's it going?" he will most likely fail to notice your attempt to engage him. Less frequently, if he does try to engage, he has to switch his mindset from whatever he's focusing on, attempt to understand your small talk (which, if thought about literally, will often make no sense), check in with how he's feeling or what he's doing, or what is "up," and produce a response for you.
While I have been trying to teach him (and hope that he soon understands) that these types of interactions are merely formalities, he hasn't gotten there yet. And at this point it's much more important to me that he successfully makes the transition to his classroom than that he interacts with the art teacher in a "socially appropriate" manner on the way there, so for now I will handle her for him.
- Get on his level.
If you really have something to talk to Flynn about, or something cool to show him, awesome! I love when adults are curious about his interests and all the neat things he's learning. He's a fascinating kid.
But you should know that he has a lot of trouble knowing when to pay attention to you. There's a lot of random conversation out there, not much of which is interesting, so if you want his attention, make it obvious. Get on his level. Show him something. Be direct, and patient.
- Keep it simple.
Processing problems are common for kids on the spectrum. Joint attention is a common difficulty, as is sensory overload, as is simple delayed processing. Get his attention first, then use simple language and sentence structure. Talk slowly. Never doubt that he's extremely intelligent, but there can be a lot of interference between your words and his mind.
- Engage him through his interests.
If you really want to have a conversation, ask him something about space or the ocean, ask what his favorite tv show is, ask what character is his favorite. He will tell you all the fuck about it. You will hear more than you ever wanted to hear.
This is pretty common for spectrumites. Once they're on a track, they stay on it until the track runs out. Flynn has been taught pretty well to stop when someone requests a "time out." He will take a break and let you interject something, though he probably will tell you that he was not done.
A friend of Flynn's who is also on the spectrum loves the alphabet. So I play with him by working with letters: spelling, arranging letters into shapes, making letters out of other things, making funny pretend words, etc.
If you're going to meet a kid on the spectrum, ask the kid's parents about their interests. They will tell you the way in.
- Don't force eye contact.
For the love of God, don't force him to look you in the eye. He'll fuck you up.
- Don't be surprised if we leave.
Most of the time I really enjoy parties and play-dates, and so does Flynn. Sometimes we enjoy them a bit too much. It's pretty easy for him to get overwhelmed. Even if you don't see it, I'm watching closely for it. When he needs a break we'll either find a quiet place to relax or we'll be out of there. Sorry! It's in everyone's best interest.
- Prep your kids.
So . . . this one time, I went on a trip with my brother and his daughter. He knew Flynn had autism, but the diagnosis was fairly new. I guess he wasn't sure what to say to her about Flynn, so he erred on the side of saying nothing at all. She had no idea what to expect. Flynn was moderately obsessed with trains at that point, so when it came time to play inside a real steam engine, Flynn needed to be the conductor, to pull the whistle, and to turn all the valves. He was not about to let another kid change the way he was playing, even his cousin. My niece, not knowing why he couldn't just play along with her, got really upset with him for being so "mean."
This is not to bash my brother (much). Most parents don't know what to say to their kids: that's fine. Here's my recommendation. "When you play with Flynn, he may want to play in ways that seem odd to you. That's fine. If you want to go along with it, you'll probably have fun."
Sometimes Flynn plays well with others. Sometimes he needs constant supervision. I can't predict which is going to happen. If it's a good day, awesome! If not, let me handle him - I'll do my best to direct him to activities that will lead to minimal conflict. If he gets stuck on one thing and it's leading to problems, it would be great if you could tell your kid that he'll be done in a bit and they can come back when he's done. I'll make sure they get a turn.So that's it! You're ready to hang out with us, and all it took was a 1000 word essay! Fun times lie ahead. See you soon!