You have to hand it to kids with autism: they won’t tolerate being bored. From early in life my son made it clear that if a person wasn’t interesting, he would disregard them. Visitors arrived to the house but he stayed where he was on the floor, pressing his thumb into the carpet, swiping a train in front of his eyes. If someone said hello to him he might look up. But if the greeting was followed by nothing particularly interesting, he saw no reason to stand up, say hello, much less smile.
Oh, I could get him to do so, of course. I could walk over to him, take him by the hand, lead him toward the visitor. He was a particularly compliant kid for one with autism. Once he was able to speak, I could even encourage him into a greeting. “Say, hello!” I’d instruct. “Hello,” he’d say, flatly.
But that was just a prompted greeting with nothing to encourage him to repeat the behaviour. He didn’t want to say hello. He wasn’t invested in it.
In a neurotypical child, working through a rote response might cause him or her to feel dutiful or grown up. It might encourage the habit of social greetings, in fact, as the child learns there are social benefits to being polite.
But rote social greetings didn’t do much for Nick. Not at first, anyway. At that time there was no social benefit, you see. He didn’t really care.
Sand running through a glass timer was interesting. Certain shapes—in my son’s case, circles—were interesting. He collected coins, bottle caps, checker pieces, buttons. You’d find tiddlywinks and milk bottle tops bingo markers hidden under the bed. He’d throw all these things in the air, collect them back up, throw them again. It delighted him, but he didn’t share the delight with anyone else. He didn’t say, “Look at this!” He didn’t say anything, in fact, because he couldn’t. However, not even his non-verbal communication invited me.
He should be interested in people, we were told. That is what is wrong with him. I agree he should have been interested in people, but those who were monitoring the extent of his autism and everything else about him were wrong to imagine he wasn’t interested in people. His threshold for what made them interesting was just very high. People had to do something to be interesting. They had to do more than just be.
I’ll give you an example. Back to his grandparents…they would arrive to the door. First, they would greet their own son (my husband), then me, then our daughter, and finally Nick. There was no changing this, by the way. The grandparents were more rigid than my autistic child. If I tried to persuade them to say hello to Nick, to get down on his level, to think of something rewarding to associate with their arrival, they looked at me as though I was being rude. Grandparents were to be respected, not instructed.
They wanted Nick to wait a reasonable amount of time it took them to get inside and speak the adults before turning to a child. That was how it was done. That fact that his attention span was about five seconds, after which he lost interest, was something he needed to learn to expand. And had he been neurotypical, he would have expanded it. Or he would have called out to be heard, ran up and hugged his grandparents, bursting through whatever barrier existed in order to get the attention he craved.
But he did none of this. The value of the interaction was so low that he walked away.
Once the grandparents settled down in the living room with their tea and their talk, they may as well have been pieces of furniture they were so boring. He didn’t want to show them his toys like our daughter did. He didn’t want to show them his drawings or the clay model he made or the award he won at school. It wasn’t simply because he didn’t draw or sculpt or win any awards in school. He didn’t seek their praise because it didn’t really matter to him (though I must add that it would very much matter in later years).
Anyway, he had stuff to do. We called his flapping his hands and strange ways of looking at objects close up to his eyes “stimming.” He might have called it “fun.” Anyway, he had to do something with his time, right? And before we started the constant social stimulation and learning through a play-based ABA programme, he didn’t have the imagination to go beyond very simple means of occupying himself.
Sometimes, he didn’t seem to be doing anything. He would zone out entirely, staring into space with such apparent disregard to those around him that the head teacher in my daughter’s primary school once remarked that “there didn’t seem to be a lot going on.”
Maybe there wasn’t. He was autistic. Not “high-functioning” either, not yet. He would grow into the HF label, but that took a year or two of hard work. Hard for him, because learning was quite difficult for him (at first). Hard for us because we had to be super fun and engaging, proving him to him over and again that interacting with people was worth it.
I keep hearing people who dislike applied behaviour analysis (ABA) as a teaching tool for autistic children because it is “dehumanising” or doesn’t take into account the way the child feels. But that was not how we were taught to teach our own child even seventeen years ago, when we began. We were always looking for how Nick felt as a learner, as a beloved child, as a person who is deserving of respect and care, but also deserving of an education.
We had to somehow persuade our son that people were fun, that learning was fun, that communication was fun. We had to convince him that experiences were always enhanced in the company of another, that games were best when shared. Did it work? Hell, yes, it worked. He loves being around people–the problem we have is that there aren’t that many kids his age who really want to be around him. He even shares computer games. “Hey, it’s your turn, Dad,” he now says, passing his father an electronic game of Scrabble on his iphone. He doesn’t want to play by himself.