A Mind of My Own
Posted by Gail | Filed under Autism
Chapter Ten: Social Interactions (Part 2)
I’ve sometimes felt somehow at fault for not encouraging Malcolm’s friendships. I went out of my way for Alex. But Malcolm just wasn’t interested. And each time I tried, the effort was so painful for him — and me — that I let him be alone.
We would invite a friend over for a play-date and then Malcolm would fixate on one of his favourite activities and totally ignore the playmate. Or we’d invite someone Malcolm seemed to like, and that person would always have something else to do. We’ve never had a traditional birthday party for him, because there were no children to invite, particularly in the very early grades. As he has grown older, he’s shown a little more interest in the people around him, but no one would ever call him a social butterfly. His classmates at school have always “taken care of him” – made sure he’s chosen in gym or helped him find his place in the work being done, but the relationships have been more “helpful” than “friendly.” I am grateful to those children for watching out for my son, even as I prayed that at some point he would meet a friend who he would get and who would get him. Sometimes I wanted to cry because I felt his loneliness so acutely. But, in reality, Malcolm didn’t seem lonely. He was content in his alone-ness. Turns out he thinks he has a great life. He doesn’t feel like he is missing anything (as far as I can tell). And he’s happy.
It took a really, really, really long time for Malcolm to get the gist of what a friend is. He simply didn’t know how to go about making friends. And many of his behaviours run counter to “friendship.” He wasn’t very good at taking turns, despite my best efforts. He HATED to lose and would cheat or stomp away rather than face the unpleasant feeling he had when he didn’t win.
Because I know that the development of the skills associated with socializing and working in a group setting are crucial, I’ve kept Malcolm in a traditional school setting even though my instinct has always been to home-school him full time. And I’ve taken every little tiny piece of advice I’ve read, heard or had shared with me to see if it would work with him.
Since Malcolm never seemed to know what to say in various circumstances, I had to coach him heavily. I started by giving him the exact words or phrases to use within a particular social context. We’d role-play using the model conversation. Since this building of a “pattern vocabulary” is what works in all kinds of sports, indeed in anything that’s skills-based, I decided it made sense to do it with social skills too.
I had Malcolm rehearse what to say on the phone to his grandmother before making a call. Then we’d role-play the conversation. Then I’d call her and fill her in. Then she’d call and ask to speak with him and I’d watch and hint from the sidelines as he “conversed” with her.
Malcolm never found it easy to carry on a conversation so I made a point of having him talk with me about something each day. Sometimes over breakfast, sometimes at bath-time, we would talk about something. First the conversations were very stilted as I asked questions to keep them going. Then, as he became more fluent, I pulled back on the questions, and let the silence sit there between us. When I did ask a question, it was open-ended, “So, Mister, what did you think when that happened?” I was often rewarded with an “I don’t know.” But I never gave up. I’d moved to a ridiculous option. “Do you think that Daddy smashed his car into the garage?” He would laugh and correct me by giving a more reasonable alternative. And in that way we progressed, slowly, to the point where we could chat.
There were times when a deep swig of patience – a step out onto the porch and three deep breaths – were necessary to get me through some of his conversations. Since he could be very single-minded in his topics, and very repetitive, I had to listen to the same things over and over and over. But I let him jabber on, fixing things in his sentences, redirecting him to something new, encouraging him to share his ideas. Now he’s pretty good at conversing. People who haven’t seen him in a while are often surprised at just what a chatter-box he’s turned into. And I smile to myself and know that as time goes by he’ll only get better.