Fortunately, increasingly many schools of thought and “therapy” are beginning to understand that in order to teach an autistic child effectively, an adult has to learn, at least a little bit, to communicate in that child’s native language. That “language” (or culture, perhaps?) is the neurology called Autism. An autistic child has automatically been thrown into a full-immersion Neurotypical classroom that we call the “normal” world. They didn’t have a choice about this. But we can choose to learn a bit more about how to make them comfortable in that unfamiliar space. We spend so much time and energy and money and research on bringing them closer to being like us. But really, in order to have a good relationship with anyone autistic, we have to meet them halfway.
NOTE: You may notice that I alternately include myself in the “us” of autistic people and the “us” of the typical world. This is because, as one of the many who grew up “passing” without a diagnosis, I have something of a dual citizenship. Depending on the context, my knowledge and experience may align more or less with one side or the other. I often find myself explaining neurotypical things that I mostly understand to autistic people. I also often find myself explaining autistic things that make perfect sense to me to neurotypical people who are utterly baffled by them. In both cases, I feel a bit like a cultural anthropologists: knowledgeable about a culture without exactly belonging to it.
For example, neurotypical people tend to require a lot of feedback when they communicate. If you say something to me, especially if I am a child, you expect me to acknowledge your speech verbally or by looking at you, or oftentimes both. Autistic people aren’t always capable of this kind of response, nor should they have to be. It’s a waste of their time and energy to mimic a behavior that serves no purpose other than to meet societal expectations.
6-year-old Carl is carrying a big bowl of paint and soap and water across the patio. I have told him I don’t want him to bring it into the house, but I know that when he is busy having Ideas, he is likely to forget, ignore, or not even notice the rules.
“Carl, where are you taking that?” I ask. No response. I’m not offended. I know he’s not ignoring me “on purpose” or trying to be disrespectful. His mind is just too busy to process my request.
I step in front of him to make sure he’s aware of my presence.
“Where are you going with that bowl? Remember, I don’t want you to bring it into the house.” He notices the obstruction in his path (me) and turns to walk around it. It’s possible that my words haven’t yet penetrated into his conscious awareness.
I step to the side with him, not letting him past. I speak clearly and firmly.
“Carl, I need you to tell me where you are taking the bowl. Where are you taking the bowl?” He stops finally, and looks at me. I can almost see the wheels churning in his head. Now I recognize his specific dilemma. He heard and understood my request, but, although he has significant verbal abilities, he can’t tap into them right now. His brain is too busy doing something else to produce language.
Have you ever found yourself multitasking too many things at once and finally said to the person you’re talking to, “Hang on a minute, I need to ____ and then I’ll finish what I was saying to you” (or some variation on that theme)? I know I’ve it happen to plenty of neurotypical adults: they get to the tricky part of a task and pause mid-sentence because they can no longer do both things at once. It happens with competing language processes, too, such as when you try to hold a conversation while still listening to the commentators when watching the game, or when you try to speak to one person while writing a text or email to another.
So I waited patiently for Carl to be able to switch gears enough to communicate with me. He wasn’t able to verbalize, but after several seconds he nodded with his chin towards a small table. “Ok,” I said, stepping out of his way. Message successfully sent and received, he turned his full attention back to his project.
It would have been very easy for us to get frustrated with each other here. I could have considered him rude and disobedient. He could have been angry with me for interrupting him (if I had been a stranger, he probably would have gotten upset). If I had pushed him to respond faster, or insisted that he answer me verbally, I might have completely disrupted his train of thought, resulting in an even longer wait, or a confrontational response, or a meltdown. But I chose to work with the way that he works, and as a result, we both got what we wanted.
Human beings are capable of logical, rational thought. But we are not inherently logical rational beings. We are emotional. We are complicated. We are self-contradictory. We are inconsistent.
It’s easy to forget this. We expect other people to Make Sense, by which we mean that we want to be able to understand the reasons behind people’s feelings and actions. And to some extent, we often can. We have the ability to emphasize, to imagine how we would feel in a particular situation and hence understand how another person in that situation feels. But we can’t always know someone’s situation perfectly. We can’t always imagine that situation accurately. And, of course, we don’t all have identical responses to the same things. We don’t always make sense to each other. We don’t always make sense to ourselves.
So I am amazed at how often I fall into the mental trap of expecting children to make sense. Children are, in fact, less likely to make sense than adults. They are also less able to reflect on, understand, and express the reasons for their emotions and actions. But many adults get annoyed when children act in a way that the adult can’t understand.
It always amazes me how many adults seem to have completely forgotten what it was like to be a child, to have irrational fears and inexpressible longings and heartbreak over ordinary occurrences. Even though, as adults, we still have these experiences, only perhaps less often and more privately. Why does it never occur to us that a child might be crying because of the song playing on the radio, laughing at something they just imagined or remembered, or angry just because it’s been a long day rather than because of any specific event?
As with so many things, this expectation of an immediate and obvious cause for someone’s feelings is magnified in dealing with disabled children. I was at the beach with a 9-year-old nonverbal client today. We were walking along at the water’s edge when he suddenly began to cry.
I asked him what was wrong, although I knew he had no way to tell me. I asked if he was injured, hungry, cold, if he needed to go back to his Dad, if I could do anything to help… (While he doesn’t indicate yes or no, he will stop crying if I manage to figure out what he needs, so I try to list a number of possible solutions for him.)
When he simply continued to sob, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why I was assuming a concrete and proximate reason. Maybe he was thinking about something that saddened or scared or worried him. His grandmother has been ill. He has a new baby brother. And there are a million things I don’t know that could be wrong. Maybe his parents had a fight. Maybe he has a mean teacher. Maybe his best friend isn’t in his class this year. Anything could be upsetting him.
And maybe it was something more immediate, but abstract. He spent a long time tossing a ball to himself today, and then we walked past a group of kids playing a ball game. Maybe he felt left out and wished that the other kids would play with him. Maybe he felt sad about being so different from the other kids. About not even knowing how to ask to join them. Perhaps he was just disappointed that he was walking with me instead of swimming with his Dad (they did go swimming, but not for as long as he wanted).
We found a bench and sat. His Dad came over and started running through the same questions I had– did he need a snack, a sweater…? He waved Dad away, turned his back. He told him not to cry, and, at my urging, went back to his swimming.
“Don’t cry.” I hear that a lot, from many sources. It’s usually said in a sympathetic way, not a mean way. “It’s ok, buddy, dry those tears.” “Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be scared of.” “Aw… Cheer up, honey.” It’s a natural response, I think. We hate seeing someone in pain (there’s that empathy again). We want to fix it. We want to make it all better. And sometimes, we can. Sometimes sympathy and reassurance is enough. Love alone has dried many a child’s tears. But it can also hurt to be told that everything is ok when that just isn’t the case. So I’ve removed the phrase “don’t cry” from my vocabulary.
I put my arm around my client’s shoulder and sat with him and his tears. I spoke softly.
I reminded him that he was loved.
I told him that everyone feels sad and cries sometimes. And that he would feel better eventually.
I told him I understand that life can be really hard, and that it was ok to feel upset about that.
I told him that I wished I knew how to help him feel better, but that sometimes it just takes time.
He reached over and gripped my hand. After a few more minutes, he stopped crying. He stood up and tugged me in the direction of the parking lot.
“Ok,” I said, “Let’s go get your Dad and tell him you’re ready to go home.” And we did. And also, I told him that he was a great kid and I love hanging out with him. I probably should have said it sooner. I’ll try to remember to say it more often.
He’s one of those kids that people (myself included, I’m embarrassed to say) inevitably describe as being “in their own world.”* But that’s not true at all. Better to say that he perceives and interacts with the same world we do… he just does so very differently than most of us. We don’t “speak” the same mental language, and many things that most people take for granted just aren’t on his radar. I suspect that plenty of things that are obvious to him pass us by completely, too. He doesn’t often make eye contact, rarely looks at something that someone is pointing at. He doesn’t do social smiles, or acknowledge when people arrive or leave, or have any verbal language. It’s hard to remember sometimes that he’s actually very observant and quite clever.
He’s a musical kid. Hums a lot, whistles better than I do, and does some reasonably good bird calls. He vocalizes a fair bit, especially when happy or excited. But he doesn’t use many speech sounds, and almost no consonants. With one exception. One of his happy verbal stims goes something like this: “bee-bee-bee bee-buh-bee…”
I wondered about this for a while. Why “bee?” Granted, “B” it is one of the early consonant sounds babies learn, but usually after “Mama,” at least, and it’s usually “Bah” rather than “Bee.” “Gah” and “Dah” are also learned early, but I’ve never heard him say either of those. When the most likely answer finally popped into my mind, I couldn’t believe it took so long for the idea to occur to me.
See, he’s from a multilingual household, and the most commonly spoken language at home is… Arabic. Where the standard term of endearment is “habibi” (ha-bee-bee), which means “beloved.” His parents and grandparents and so on use his name as well, of course, but very often he is addressed as “habibi,” especially when people are happy with him.
It’s wonderfully endearing to me that, out of all the things he hears on a daily basis, this is the one he has chosen (consciously or not) to mimic. Maybe it’s his way of saying “I love you” back to his mother, to his family, to the world. I don’t know. But it sounds even more joyful now that I know its origins.
Bee-bee-buh-bee indeed, dear child, bee-bee-beeee…
* Autism expert Judy Endow writes on why she dislikes that phrase: http://www.judyendow.com/autistic-behavior/we-are-not-in-our-own-world/ http://ollibean.com/autism-and-measuring-normal/
Once upon a time, I realize sadly, I would have thought there was something “wrong” with a child like this one. I would have been ill at ease around him when I was a child myself. Painfully timid in my own childhood, I had almost a phobia of anything that stood out from the normal and drew attention to itself, completely unaware that I was one such subject myself. I didn’t “speak” fluent neurotypical then, but neither did I speak autistic, at least not in the sense of being able to relate to most other autistic people (though I suspect one of my few childhood friends would have qualified for a diagnosis of what was then called Asperger’s syndrome).
Now I speak passable neurotypical, and quite diplomatically at that. I also speak passable autistic– perhaps not with perfect fluency, but enough to make friends among its native people. Neither language requires much conscious effort on my part, except in extreme situations. “Speaking” is a metaphor here– it’s much less about verbal language than about mental and behavioral language. Perhaps I bridge the gap so well because my brain’s native language is verbal– like that of most neurotypicals– but its syntax and vocabulary are closer to autistic.
Language is on my mind because I think my young companion at the beach today speaks a very different neurological language than I do. His mind, I suspect, does not yet think in words. He seems to understand words that others say, although I have yet to gain a sense of his level of language comprehension. He shows no interest in words, so far as I can tell. I should mention that today was only my third time working with him, but within a few hours of our first meeting (when I introduced myself by reassuring him that I wasn’t there to make him sit at a table and do things), he identified me as an acceptable adult to trust and ask for help with things.
A neurotypical observer of us at the beach today would probably have identified little interaction, much less cooperation, between us. The same observer might not have known we were playing and having fun, except by looking at our smiling faces. They would have seen, mostly, a young woman meandering along the beach with an elementary-school boy, about 1-3 meters (yards) from him at all times.
The boy jumps on the wet sand at the water’s edge, squats down to gather a handful, tosses it to himself for a few minutes, repeats. He stands, lopes a few feet down the beach. Bends backward to stare at the sky. Stands with his head and leg angled to one side, like a dancer caught mid-turn, looking down at his own heel. A phrase from a piece of autistic performance art comes to mind– “stiff and stimmy, stiff and stimmy.” One hand flaps rhythmically, sometimes hanging down loosely from the elbow, at other times up near his face, his elbow bent. (I wince, recalling that as children we used that gesture as a derogative to indicate intellectual disability). He dashes into the surf and back, jumps, twirls, crouches, kneels, kicks water, scoops sand, again and again and again. Sometimes he brings sand to his face, smells or tastes it carefully. He is smiling broadly almost the entire time.
The boy is never silent. He shrieks, growls, makes sound effects, gives bird calls, vocalizes vowels, and hums– sometimes a few notes, sometimes a recognizable line or two from a song. I repeat a hummed phrase with him maybe 10 times, obviously knowing it yet unable to place it, until I finally recognize it as a middle line from a Christmas carol. Over perhaps an hour, I recognize half a dozen songs– children’s songs, mostly, in both English and French– all hummed perfectly in tune. He does not say or sing any words.
I walk along the beach near him, not crowding. I stoop to pick up shells, rocks, or seaweed. I draw patterns in the sand with my hands and feet, dig holes, make piles and shapes of sand that the boy often comes over and takes from my hands to play with. Sometimes I hum what he is humming, or join him in a yell of excitement or joy. Sometimes I hum or sing something else. Often I am quiet. I, too, am usually smiling.
Here’s what a casual observer does not see: every ten minutes or so, the boy looks up at me, as if making sure I’m still nearby, and smiles when his eyes meet mine. Although he walks looking at his feet, he manages not to bump into anyone on the busy beach. Only once or twice does the water and sand he is flinging about come near to hitting anyone. On those occasions, I come over, tap his arm, and remind him to please be careful not to get sand on other people. When he wades deeper into the waves, with me walking alongside him, he comes over to hold my hand, not letting go again until we’re back in the shallows. He doesn’t try to go in the water any deeper than where he can stand firmly, a level of safety-awareness that even many neurotypical children lack. His mother comes over at one point and asks if he is ready to leave. He gently but firmly pushes her away. At one point he takes my hand and pulls it toward his jacket. “You want me to take your jacket off?” I ask, and take hold of a sleeve. He pulls away, then brings my hand to his jacket again. “You want me to zip your jacket up?” I guess, and he stands still while I do so.
Here’s what I almost miss: a number of minutes after I pick up an interesting rock, he picks up a rock. He tosses it to himself for a while, then hands it to me to hold. Usually, as I draw patterns in the sand, he ignores them. Sometimes he comes over and steps on them. I wonder if perhaps he wants me to stop, but then I realize he’s just trying to experience them in a tactile way. Much later, he begins using his own feet to make patterns in the sand. I assume this is something he’s always done until his mother expresses surprise. I realize he’s been paying close attention to me all along.
From time to time, I tap his arm a few times to get his attention and point out something– a kite, a pelican, a crab– or make a request (“let me take your shirt off before you get in the water,” “We’ve gone far enough– let’s head back towards your Mom now,”).
I learn about the texture and feel of the sand in great detail. The warm, fine sand that lies dry above the tidemark. Sand swirling in the water against my legs. Watery sand between my toes as the waves retract. The innumerable textures and behaviors of sand between wet and dry– it’s fascinating stuff, really, the physics of how it moves and dries, clumps and scatters and melts. I stomp, place my foot lightly, press down, try to make different depths of footprints. The sand here is wonderful– white and black grains of slightly different weights that settle into beautiful patterns, and golden flecks of mica throughout both.
It’s a perfect afternoon, spent with a perfect companion. I wonder many things, about what he knows and doesn’t, when he will acquire certain skills that most children his age perfected long ago, when he will begin to communicate in words. I wonder what occupies his thoughts, remembering my own childhood hours of telling myself stories as I wandered back and forth in the yard. I wonder what it’s like to think in something other than words. I wonder what kinds of things he should be taught now, and how best to convey them, and how I would know whether or not he understands. But I have no fear– either of him or for him. He is obviously intelligent, happy, alert, and generally cooperative and considerate when he is aware of what others want from him. I can’t understand how anyone could think there is anything “wrong” with a child like this.
The literal-mindedness of autistic people often requires that we show a certain extra care in the way we communicate with them. Particularly as children, they have not yet learned many of the social and behavioral rules that go unsaid, the ones most other people generally pick up through observation by about age five, the ones that become so obvious that before childhood ends, most folks have stopped even being aware of them as rules. Even among typically developing children, I often see parents get frustrated with their children for asking questions whose answers are assumed universal by adults. I am always sad when I see a parent snap something like “what do you think?!” or “you know better!” at a child who is asking an honest question. (True, sometimes children do ask questions who answers they know perfectly well, but that’s a different story. I hate, too, when a parent says “stop that!” to a young child without specifying what “that” is. So unfair! But I digress).
The other day, I was working with an autistic client, an elementary-school boy. We were at a fountain, and (not surprisingly) he showed every sign of wanting to play in it, which would have been a bad idea in such cold weather.
“Please don’t get your clothes wet,” I instructed as we approached.
As soon as he got close enough, he scooped up some water in his hands and poured it onto his own foot. Deliberate disobedience? Not having attended to my instructions? Lack of impulse control? Or…? A moment later, a thought occurred to me.
“Your shoes count as clothes,” I clarified. And then, because I remembered that many autistic children (as well as those with ADHD and other developmental disabilities) often do better with instructions that tell them what to do rather than what not to do, I rephrased my instructions altogether:
“You may get your hands wet, but only your hands, nothing else.” And he followed this instruction easily.
Now, this child is not perfectly obedient– no child is. He has a mischievous streak, a strong will, intense curiosity, and a frequent tendency to ignore the preferences of his caregivers. But at the same time, I suspect he sometimes gets labeled as disobedient unfairly.
When you give him a rule or instruction, it is common for him to do something that almost goes against the rule, but not quite. Children like this are often said to be attention-seekers, to “like getting a rise out of people,” or to always be “pushing boundaries” and “seeing what they can get away with.” This puts a somewhat negative spin on the situation, making it sound as if the child prefers to cause a certain amount of trouble. And perhaps at times this is true.
But let me offer a possible alternative explanation.
Imagine a typically developing boy of the same age. His mother sends him out to play on a muddy day with the instruction “don’t get your clothes dirty!” The boy thinks about this for a moment and wonders if the rule applies to his shoes as well. So he asks. In words. Verbally. He says something like “Does that mean my shoes, too?” And he gets an answer.
Such a simple and obvious exchange, we hardly notice it.
But now think of a relatively nonverbal child in the exact same situation. He has the same question in mind, but he lacks the words and the ability to ask the question verbally. He still wants to know the answer. And the only possible way for him to get the answer is to perform an experiment, to try the action that he is not sure is allowed and see how people react. He’s not trying to test limits or get anyone upset or cause trouble– he’s just trying to ask a question (as all children do), using the only method he knows.
So please, think of this possibility the next time you work with a child who seems to be trying to get around the rules or give you a hard time. They may just want to understand better, and it would be unfair to punish them for that perfectly reasonable desire. Please assume, at least at first, that the child has the best of intentions. Be respectful of the fact that they may genuinely not understand, may not have the same basic knowledge about the situation that you take for granted. And please take responsibility for your part of helping the child behave well: be as clear and explicit as possible when setting rules. Choose your words with care, in order to make the situation easier for a child who might be struggling very hard to do the right thing.
This is a really valuable reminder. It’s equally important to remember that 1) “behavior” isn’t always voluntary and 2) even involuntary actions have reasons and causes that need to be understood and respected.
A few weeks ago, my client, Ethan, came in for his session very upset and agitated. We began our lesson and tried working through his irritation to no avail. Ethan was becoming more and more distraught. So, we took a short detour from our lesson to discuss the issue. I am a big stickler for doing lessons in RPM sessions – it is part of how RPM works – engaging the brain and then body in cognitive lessons. However, sometimes the situation calls for a change in plan and this was one of those days!
Elizabeth: Let’s break for a moment Ethan. I can see you are really upset. What’s going on?
Ethan: I AM UPSET BECAUSE I AM NOT KIDDING AROUND AND I CAN NOT HELP IT WHEN MY BODY ACTS OUT.
Elizabeth: Let’s try writing a letter to your body.
I DO NOT LIKE YOUR BEHAVIOR TODAY!…
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Here’s a story from some time ago, when I had just begun working with 7-year-old Rhythm, a nonverbal autistic boy.
On one of my earliest visits with the family, Rhythm held his hands up in front of him and began slapping them loosely one over the other– a type of flapping I had never seen before?
“He wants you to tell him ‘quiet hands'” explained his mother. My brain winced. Being new to the family, I tried for a pleasantly neutral tone and said, “I’m not a fan of ‘quiet hands.'”
“No, neither are we,” said Mom, “But an ABA therapist he had for a short time gave him a lot of negative attention for flapping his hands, and now he thinks it’s a game.”
His 10-year-old sister demonstrates. She grabs at his hands with her own, covering them briefly. “Quiet hands, silly!” Both children giggle. It’s obviously a joke to them.
My brain grinds its gears trying to wrap around this concept. My introduction to the concept of “quiet hands” was Julia Bascom’s outstanding essay (http://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/quiet-hands/), which pulls no punches in explaining why “quiet hands” is abuse, plain and simple.
I try it once. “Quiet hands, silly,” I say in as joking a tone I can manage, batting ineffectually at Rhythm’s hands. Even as a joke, it feels wrong.
His mother obviously has similar instincts. When Rhythm comes up to her for the ritual, she cups her hands around his momentarily and says “quiet hands”…. then mock-whispers to him, as if sharing a secret, “It’s ok! I know you’re excited. I’m excited too.” She smiles at him and hugs his shoulders. My heart melts a little.
The next time Rhythm slaps his hands, I skip the “quiet hands” line altogether and go straight to “it’s ok to be excited!” instead. It feels better.
(He has a similar ritual with shrieking in excitement, then holding his finger to his lips. He likes when his mother mirrors the shushing motion. There, too, though, I’ve noticed that she reminds him that it’s ok for him to show excitement. I vary my responses to him shrieking and then telling himself to be quiet. If we’re indoors, I’ll say, “I know you’re very excited, and that’s good. But you’re right– that was a little loud for indoors. Let’s try and save the screaming for outside.” If we’re outdoors, I actively encourage him to make as much noise as he wants.)
There was still something missing, though. I could feel it at the back of my mind. Reassuring and reaffirming Rhythm’s right to express himself however he wants wasn’t enough.
Finally, I realized what it was, and I felt foolish for not getting it before. The most useless phrase in the history of child-rearing is “Do as I say, not as I do.” Because for children– ALL children– ultimately, words come in as a second language. The primary language of human interaction is behavior. Children don’t care what you SAY, they care how you ACT. They believe what they observe and experience above all else. What good would it do for me to say “It’s ok,” and “I’m excited too,” if I didn’t prove to him that I was telling the truth?
So the next time Rhythm began to flap and slap his hands in excitement, I flapped with him. I needed to show him by example that flapping in excitement is OK, is accepted, is even done by someone in an authority position.
And that’s what I did from that day on. I shared my own flaps with him. And we’d sit on the porch swing together, happy and excited, rocking and flapping in silent communication.