Communication, Attention, and Priority
I need to remember how often, when a child doesn’t seem to understand what I am telling them, the real issue is that they are simply focused on something else, something they consider more important. This is true of all children– they focus on what matters to them, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else around.
How often have you heard a parent giving the same instruction time and again to a child who is playing — “don’t run!” or “use your indoor voice!” — only to see the child forget over and over as they get completely lost in their activity? Not to mention the things children ask over and over — “can I get one? Please? Pleeeeease?” or “are we there yet?” — to the frustration of parents who simply don’t understand that this question is ALL that is on their child’s mind at the time.
The other day when I arrived at Rhythm’s home to watch him after school, he dragged me down the street to a neighbor’s house. I already knew that he likes this house– they have a dog, and a rubber dinghy in the driveway that he loves to touch and rub and thump to hear the sounds it makes, and stairs up to the front stoop (he loves stairs, especially outdoor stairs). It appeared that no one was home at the time, so I was willing to let him romp around their front yard.
Usually, when he and I go walking, I struggle to find a balance between letting him enjoy exploring his own way and not letting him bother other people or do anything that would result in a confrontation with the neighbors. So, I’ll let him come up someone’s front walk and examine the architecture (he loves archways), but not knock on the door or walls. I let him press his face to the window of people’s cars but not their houses. I let him cross lawns but try to keep him out of flowerbeds.
He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about any of the boundaries and concepts of “private property.” Of course– I’m one to talk! As a child, I regularly snuck into other people’s yards to play. I didn’t have much experience with not being allowed into places, and I don’t think Rhythm has either. At home, he goes into all the rooms at will and has to be stopped from bursting into the bathroom to say hi to whoever is using it at the time. It isn’t surprising that he doesn’t understand privacy in that case– after all, he never goes to the bathroom alone, so why would anyone else?
At the neighbor’s house. We peered in the back gate by the boat. Rhythm tromped up the steps towards the front door with me in tow, hanging back a little reluctantly. They still had Halloween decorations and fake spiderwebs up in their front stoop, and he seemed to enjoy looking at those. Then he tugged my hand towards to door, meaning that he wanted me to open it or at least knock.
“No, we can’t,” I explained, “We haven’t been invited. Also, I don’t think they are home right now.” We repeated this process a few times– him wandering and looking around for a moment, then trying to get me to knock at that door. Me, telling him that we aren’t supposed to knock on people’s doors unless they have asked us to come over and visit, that it isn’t polite.
This kind of persistence is typical for Rhythm, and as I said before, for other children as well. The difference, when I work with nonverbal children, is that I don’t know how much of their persistence is due to various factors. In addition to the intensive focus that children give to their desires, it is entirely possible that:
1) They don’t understand that I am saying “no,”
2) They don’t understand WHY I am saying “no,”
3) They believe that I don’t understand their request,
4) They actually ARE asking for something different than I think, and/or
5) They have a counter-argument to the stated reason why I refused their request, but don’t know how to express it.
We tend to ignore those latter three possibilities with nonverbal children, and this is a problem. We easily assume that these children don’t understand us, when it is equally likely that we are failing to understand them instead. Verbal children can explain further if they perceive they are being misunderstood, and they also like to negotiate — “I promise if we get a puppy I’ll feed him every day!” or “Can I stay up for just ten more minutes? How about five?” or “I won’t be scared by that movie!” or “If you let me go to the party, I won’t ask for anything else ever again!”.
Nonverbal children, on the other hand, generally lack the ability to use that level of nuance, and are stuck simply making the request over and over in the hopes of getting their point across. And yes, it is possible that they are simply being stubborn– as all children are, at times– but we should not assume that this, or lack of intelligence, are the only explanations for their persistence.
I have a wonderful example of Rhythm using a counter-argument with me. I was getting him ready for his bath one night and he gestured, quite clearly, that he wanted me to get into the tub with him (presumably to make waves for him. He has me do this in the kiddie pool in his yard so that he can watch the water move, and I supposed he had no reason to assume that the bath is any different). Glibly, I answered “I can’t get in the bath with you, buddy! I still have my clothes on.” He very nearly rolled his eyes at me. Then he reached over and gave the hem of my shirt a quick tug, the way I do when I start undressing him. His meaning could not have been more obvious– “Ok, silly! Take your clothes off and THEN get in the tub.” He must think I’m not very bright sometimes!
I tried not to laugh– it was such a sensible response from his perspective. I wasn’t ready to try explaining propriety to an autistic 7-year-old, so I just told him, “Sorry, it’s against the rules for me to take a bath with you.” The experience definitely taught me a lesson about making flippant excuses! Now I always try to give him the most honest reasons that I can think of for why something has to be a certain way.
Rhythm had given up, for the time being, on trying to get into the house and was walking on the low stone walls around the flower beds. He adores balancing on any sort of ledge or narrow pathway, including ones quite high up in the air, and generally holds my arm or hand to brace himself. He usually has a pretty good sense of what’s within his abilities– although he also has a tendency to terrify his mother with his idea of “reasonable” risk! He was making a strange sort of throat-clearing/coughing noise and I asked if he was ok, thinking maybe he had gotten something scratchy in his throat. He ignored me, but seemed happy enough.
Eventually he led me around to the other side of their yard, where there was another gate in the fence. Again, he tried to convince me to open it — very persistent! I started the explanation again: We can’t just go in, it’s not polite, we haven’t been invited, etc., etc.. when my attention was caught by another odd noise. At first, I thought it was geese honking, perhaps migrating for the winter, and I looked up but couldn’t see any birds. Then I figured out that the sound was coming from somewhere beyond the fence, and wondered if Rhythm had noticed the sound before I did and was curious about it.
“Are there geese in that yard?” I wondered aloud, amused. I was mostly kidding, but Rhythm’s head shot up, and I realized I was on to something.
“Wait– do your neighbors keep geese??” I asked him. He looked at me intently, not confirming yet, but definitely wanting me to continue guessing.
“Not geese… ducks?” No response. He was still waiting for me to figure it out.
“Chickens?” He nodded excitedly. “Chickens!” I practically yelled, “Your neighbors keep chickens?!” He grinned.
Then something else suddenly made sense to me, too.
“Is that what you were doing before? I get it now! You were making chicken noises! Because you wanted to see the chickens!” His odd throat-clearing noises hadn’t been perfect chicken imitations, but they were pretty darn close, and far more realistic than the “cluck cluck cluck” noise that chickens make in all the kids’ songs he listens to.
And there you have it. I have no idea whether Rhythm listened to my explanations about why we couldn’t visit, or whether they made any sense to him. But I do know now that he was trying to tell me something, too, and I almost missed it because I was so focused on getting my message across. I assumed that I knew all the relevant information, and so I didn’t pay attention to the fact that he was trying to communicate with me. Or rather, I knew he was communicating, but assumed that his message was more simple than it actually was– just “I want to visit this house” in general, not specifically “There are chickens here and I want to see them.”
We didn’t get to see the chickens that day. I explained that we’d have to come back another time when the owners were home. With the promise that he would get to return and see the chickens at a later time, he let me lead him back to his house for a snack. I have no idea whether he would have been more reluctant to return home if I hadn’t ever figured out the purpose of the visit– but I certainly wouldn’t blame him if that were true! Disappointment is frustrating enough without the added misery of knowing that your request was never properly understood in the first place.
So I will try to remember to check my assumptions, and to put at least as much effort into focusing on what children are trying to tell me as I do into trying to get messages across to them. Mutual respect and mutual understanding– these are the bonds that humans build with each other. Empathy, compassion, collaboration, cooperation: all depend on taking the time and energy to discover what is important to someone else.