Thursday, August 30, 2012

Welcome to the Land of Interaction

Ladies and gentleman, on our autism journey, we seem to be crossing from the Land of Avoidance to the not-well-defined borders of Wanting to Interact and Not Always Knowing Quite How.

A little background:

Everyone knows kids on the spectrum struggle in social interactions and playing creatively and with others. What's surprised a lot of Ethan's teachers and therapists is how big that gap has been compared to some of his strengths. (This really shouldn't be that much of a surprise, as autism has this quirky tendency to express itself differently in everyone, but that's another matter.) So for example, Ethan presented himself to them (almost two years ago now!) as a child with a high level of intellect, who also was not too rigid in routines, not prone to meltdowns, not highly impacted by sensory issues (other autism hallmarks), yet had fewer play skills and less of a desire to interact than kids who were technically more "severe" in their autism. During a few visits I would watch him in a group of kids with ASD and while he technically had some of the best language and best behavior, he often wanted nothing to do with the other kids. He didn't even want to play at the same water table. He didn't want to chase the bubbles the paraprofessionals were blowing. He wanted to walk along the side of the school and (all while interacting with mom very happily) check out the air conditioners.

For two years at the library, nearly every time another kid approached the train table, he was DONE. In preschool he graduated to the integrated class and not needing one-on-one support, yet kids still requiring more support seemed to show more of a desire (or less of a fear?) of interaction.

That is changing.

The trend started with adults. I never really thought about it, but apparently adults are "safer" for kids with autism. They meet a child at his or her level. They are better at decoding what a child is attempting to communicate. They are more predictable.

Last year at school was the Year of the Adult. Ethan treated his teachers somewhere akin to rock stars. He would go out of his way to wave and call hi when the gym or art teacher passed in the hall. "What happened to him? He talks!" one therapist remarked at the beginning of the year. Mr. Chatterbox acted downright flirty with the classroom para, whom he adored.

But over the past few months and really, mere weeks, Ethan has become increasingly interested in what other kids are doing. Like, really interested. Like, we about to move into that territory of blurted or inappropriate remarks (as well as behavior) towards other children, which will undoubtedly lead to rebuffs from other children, and perhaps even a growth in his understanding that most kids just might not get, say, his ever-growing interest in girls and boys bathroom signs.

This is a little bit worrisome but mostly exciting.

At the library the other day, Ethan stayed at the train table with another boy playing for an entire hour. This is big. I can't tell you how big this is. However, as I inched closer to see how things were going, I noticed the little boy (maybe 3?) was very bossy, and Ethan was annoyed and reacting in his favorite passive-aggressive ways, like blocking one side of the table or attempting to take all of his trains. Then he'd ignore the boy for awhile or try to move the stop signs when the boy wanted the go signs. This is the type of thing that drives Anna crazy. At other times we've seen him turn requests to play chase or other playground games turn into karate-chopping, pushing, hitting, etc. before the other kid (literally) knows what hit him.

This is typical kid-brattiness, but what I can't explain to other parents, who may just think my child is incredibly annoying, is that it's more: it's also Ethan's response to wanting to be around someone else but not being quite sure what to do; or feeling uncomfortable and unsure; or not quite knowing how to regulate his emotions.

Times like these make me think seriously about social skills classes. Thankfully, we have worked out insurance for Ethan that will indeed cover them, for the most part. To be honest, I haven't been 100 percent "rah-rah" for social skills class, at least in theory. I may be completely overthinking this, but something about them reminds me of this well-intentioned but dreadfully outdated "charm school" type course that I took back during one of my Christian school years. There was lots of "do this" and "don't do that," and a sense of "you must be THIS way or you are not acceptable."

That is the ever-present question: how to make kids with special needs feel okay in their own skin while still giving them the tools to successfully interact in our world? The last thing I want to give Ethan is a set of memorized rules and responses, a list of appropriate chat topics and proper ways to present oneself at all times. I would hate to think as he grows that he is constantly putting the lid on who he is. And yet...yet: isn't it a disservice to not provide him with the resources that might prevent ridicule and heartache down the road?

For now I can't spend all of the time thinking about that. For now I will enjoy the fact that Ethan is enjoying, more than he used to, observing and participating in what other kids are doing. I am glad to be reminded again how many kids out there with autism truly may care about others and you'd never pick up on it, because they just don't know how or what to do. The caring, the longing-to-be-involved part is really a starting point. Rather than look too much at next steps, it's nice to just marvel at the fact that we have gotten to where we are on the journey.

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