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.
One of the hardest things for me to get used to when working with Rhythm is that he doesn’t like me to talk much. He gets overwhelmed by either processing language or the sound of human voices (especially female/higher pitched voices, it seems), or both. I don’t know the specifics, just that he often gets distraught if I talk to other people too much in his hearing, and even more so if we’re talking about him, even in casual, positive ways.
It is both understandable and odd that I have trouble with this concept.
I am, on the whole, an exceedingly verbal person. I spoke early, often, and at great length– and I still do. I enjoy describing and explaining things, narrating events, and helping people understand complex concepts. While I’m not averse to a comfortable silence, I enjoy talking quite a lot as well.
I also rely heavily on speech for many of the ways in which I show respect to the children I work with, especially nonverbal children. Things I do verbally include:
– Telling them when I am about to do something with or to them, like removing a piece of clothing, so that they can be prepared and have a chance to object.
– Asking them to express consent or preference. (Eg. “Would you like to go outside?” “May I put a jacket on you?” etc.)
– Voicing things they have communicated to me nonverbally, for confirmation or clarification. (Eg. Child signs =music= and I say “You want me to put on some music?” Child points to the fridge and I say “Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?” — I often phrase things multiple ways, to reduce the chance of misunderstanding or them getting stuck on an unfamiliar word.)
I especially tend to try and problem-solve verbally, making it an interactive process. But today, I had something of an epiphany.
[a side note– Rhythm recently discontinued a seizure medication that was a heavy sedative. Since then, his parents have noted increased attention, alertness, energy, and motor control, but also a higher level of sensory sensitivity and more frequent frustration as he adjusts.]
When upset/approaching meltdown, he frequently signs =stop= and =scratch=, then scratches/claws anyone within reach. This can escalate to hair-pulling and biting, by which point he is usually in tears. It’s obvious that he’s in a great deal of distress, but it’s hard for us to tell what is triggering the distress sometimes.
Today, we had just gotten home from a walk, and he was starting to act worn out– not at meltdown yet, but at the “flop” stage– he plonked himself on the floor and starting signing =stop= over and over. I sat down with him and tried to work through it verbally, asking if something was wrong, if he could tell me what he needed, if he was hungry, in pain, needed to go to the bathroom, wanted a bath. I was asking these things calmly and slowly, trying to zero in on something I could do to make him less miserable… I hate seeing him so unhappy, and I was so at a loss for how to help him feel better.
He grabbed my wrists and scratched them, nearly crying. Then he took my hands and placed them over his ears. Something clicked in my brain, and I shut up. I finally understood that not only was he past the point of being able to answer my questions, but the very act of my asking was hurting him further.
So we sat there together in silence. After a moment, he made one of “our” faces at me, initiating a game we often play of making funny faces at each other. I responded in kind, and we made faces until he relaxed and smiled, at which point I tentatively asked again if there was something I could do for him. He asked for a drink of water. I nodded, and held out my hand to help him up.
When we went to the kitchen, his grandmother was cooking dinner, and began chattering at him cheerfully about what she was making. He fell apart again, dropped to the floor, and dug his fingernails into her leg. She suggested a bath, he agreed, and I hustled him away to the bathroom to get ready for the bath with minimal talking.
I’m honestly ashamed that it took me so long to figure this out– for a very simple reason. As I sit here writing this, I’m wearing ear-protection headphones, the kind you use around power tools. Because I had gotten to the point, as I occasionally do after a stressful or busy day, where I was afraid I would scream and cry if anyone else spoke to me– or even around me.
All sounds have the potential to drain my energy, but listening to speech that my brain has to process can be especially stressful, even for such a language-oriented person as myself. When I have limited processing power left, I can’t afford to spend it all on parsing information that other people are throwing at me. I was so exhausted by hearing their words that I could no longer hear myself think. All I wanted was for everyone to shut up and let me feel like myself for a little while.
Maybe that’s how Rhythm feels sometimes, too.
Working with Rhythm today, I came to the realization that there’s a significant time lag in a lot of his responses that I suspect is common for autistic people (children and adults) and often gets read as uncooperativeness, inconsistency, or other negative traits.
Simplest example. I asked Rhythm if he needed a potty break and he shook his head “no” (he’s quite good with using the toilet, but regular reminders help, especially if his attention is on something interesting). A few minutes later, he signed “potty,” asking for a bathroom break, and I realized that it had taken him a few minutes to think about it, switch his attention from the current activity to focusing on signals from his body, realize that he was ready to use the toilet, and communicate that to me.
I’ve seen the same thing in other situations. I’ll ask if he’s hungry or thirsty and get no response– it seems like he’s ignoring me completely. But then within 5-10 minutes, he’ll ask for food or drink. And it often takes me a few minutes to talk him into doing something or switching activities. Getting ready for bed tonight was another example.
It was nearing bed time. He took me to the front door and said “muh!” which might have been a question about when his mother was coming home, but my best guess was “you want to go out and look for the moon?” which was rewarded with emphatic nodding– it’s so much easier to understand children once I know what things they like! We went out and looked for the moon, but it was cloudy out. Then I had to physically resist having him drag me off on an adventure for a few minutes before he finally agreed to go inside and take his bath (which isn’t usually a hard sell– he loves baths).
I rarely resort to using my adult strength against his, but it was partly a safety issue in this case, so I held him back while explaining that it was nearly bedtime and also we couldn’t just wander off at night leaving the house unlocked. For five or so minutes, you’d think he either wasn’t understanding me at all or just plain didn’t care, but then he stopped trying to get me to take him down the road and let me lead him back inside.
Caretakers, therapists, and teachers often describe this kind of behavior as “willful” or “stubborn,” interpreting these delays as the child is insisting on making their point before bending to the rules– and I think this is sometimes the case, especially in young neurotypical (non-autistic) kids. It’s necessary, to some extent, for children to do this– to assert their independence, to prove to themselves that they have some amount of decision-making ability in their own lives– although too much of it is definitely exhausting for caretakers (after all, we’re talking about the defining characteristic of the “terrible two’s” here– the “no!” phase).
But in autistic children, I think it’s important that we take into account the likelihood that the child is simply taking longer to understand, think about, and respond to what we say. And they are probably utterly bewildered (not to mention emotionally hurt) if they are punished or treated as a disappointment for not cooperating sooner.
Processing time. Response time. These things are not the same in autistic people as in neurotypicals. Many autistic college students have mentioned to me that they dread class discussions, or other situations where they are expected to respond to something within a matter of minutes after having the relevant material presented to them– to say nothing of the difficulty with breaking into a discussion when their attention is already completely dedicated to processing what others are saying, never mind coming up with thoughtful responses and navigating the subtle social cues of when to cut into the conversation. (There’s a truly excellent first-hand description of that experience here: https://thethirdglance.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/words/)
If we are going to design a world that works for autistic people– or even simply make the autistic people in our own lives more comfortable– we need to take these differences into account and remember not to jump to conclusions about someone’s thoughts simply because their response is delayed, difficult to determine, or changes after they’ve had more time to think.