From an early age, we show kids how to write their names and how to brush their teeth. But can we teach them how to relate to others in a meaningful way?
That's the big question for kids with social challenges like my son. At six, he loves board games, and it's not hard to see why. After all, unlike imaginary play which confuses him, games have a set structure and clearly defined rules. Yet even so, there are limitations. When we get ready to play Pop and Hop, he'll announce that he's the red game piece and "Mommy, you're blue."
Frankly I don't care either way, and though I have nothing personal against the colour, I will insist on being anything other than blue so my son learns that he needs to ask - not presume - what I want.
What looks like a lack of empathy or consideration on his part is simply mind blindness, a difficulty in seeing a perspective other than his own. Or what professionals refer to as "theory of mind."
So back to my original question: can children like mine truly connect with others?
Of course they can. But it doesn't come naturally the way it does for typical kids; they have to work at it and learn it the way you would learn any new skill. Practice, practice, practice.
"We used to think kids with autism were not interested [in social connections]," said Nancy Tarshis, co-creator of The Incredible Flexible You (TIFY), a social thinking curriculum aimed at kids between 4-7. "The truth is, they want to connect; they just don't know how. They don't have the tools."
Tarshis describes social thinking as the thought process we need before we can apply social skills. "Social skills are behaviours, and we choose our behaviours based on the kind of thoughts and feelings we want to give others around us."
Until now, a lot of social-based learning focused on rote dialogue with little regard for context or non verbal cues.
"Canadian communities have been in dire need for effective treatments for autism," said Marika Roman, President of Speech Associates, the Ontario speech-language clinic which recently hosted the first social thinking conference in the country.
"Many existing treatment approaches that centre on amplified reinforcers help children with ASD to be more 'acceptable' to others. However, there is a need for approaches that can help children 'understand' the society and environment around them so that they can integrate autonomously."
With its own vocabulary, each of the 10 TIFY sections features an accompanying storybook, as well as suggested lesson plan for teachers, parents or clinicians working with children on an ongoing basis. There is even an original music CD to reinforce the lessons, enabling kids to generalize and transfer the skills across various situations.
Though the curriculum was designed for kids who need help with social awareness and communication - such as those with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, hyperlexia, and other behavioural problems - the concepts are beneficial to all children.
So instead of telling my son to look at me, he will learn that people give clues about what they're thinking by what they are looking at. Instead of telling him he's being "good" or "bad," I can point out that certain behaviour is simply "expected" and "unexpected."
Over time he'll come to realize we all feel our own feelings and think our own thoughts. Yes, even when it comes to something as mundane and trivial as the colour of a game piece.
For more information on TIFY, visit socialthinking.com.
For information on upcoming social thinking workshops in Canada, contact the Speech Associates.
Image: Flickr | Lauren Manning
Friends come and friends go. And if friendships change when you become a mom, then they change even more radically when your child has special needs.
A strange thing happened when my son was diagnosed with autism a few years ago. Some of my friends dove for the hills. They didn't all disappear, but some just gradually dropped off. This post isn't about finger-pointing. I get how hard it is. You don't know what to say without feeling awkward or guilty. And for a while I didn't know what to say, either.
When you learn that your child has a disability, there is a shock period you go through, a grieving stage like a dark blanket that covers your life in one fell swoop. Suddenly I found I couldn't relate to most other parents. Couldn't stand to bear witness to the joys and challenges of raising a typical kid. Play dates involving my son were naturally a shambles, and when there is no common ground between young children, it's tough for parents to hang out.
Of course some friends are keepers. But for a while I looked around, and all I saw were parents in the same rocky boat. My social circle (by necessity?) had shrunk to include predominantly other moms whose kids had, if not autism, then some other special need. We related, naturally. But it troubled me: How had autism become a prerequisite for my friendship? Awareness and advocacy are important. Autism plays a huge part in my life and probably always will, yet just as it doesn't define my son's life, it doesn't define MINE.
So if you want to be a good friend, don't take this the wrong way, but when we get together, I don't necessarily want to talk about your kids or mine.
I don't want to compare notes about therapies or swap gluten-free recipes. I don't want to commiserate over IEPs or even celebrate our kids' latest achievements, no matter proud we are of them and how far they've come. And ditto if your children are typical.
No, just for an hour or two, I want to remember who I was before I became a mom, and a mom to a child with autism at that. I want to get reacquainted with that person who had interests and ideas of her own. I want to talk about The Bachelor and Rumer Willis's latest performance on Dancing with the Stars. (OK, so maybe not, but you get the gist...) I'm willing to talk about anything, frankly. I'm not fussy. I want to sip mojitos and confess celebrity crushes and gossip about people from high school. I want to talk about books and movies and music. I want to ask where did you get that cute top, and should I cut my hair or let it grow again?
I want to bitch about utterly frivolous things like the way my husband overloads the dishwasher. I want to laugh until my sides cramp and my cheeks go numb. Just for five minutes I want to forget and remember. And if you ask how my son's doing, please don't look at me with that apologetic look on your face. He hasn't got cancer. There's no chance of remission. And don't be surprised when I answer, "Fine," like you asked about the weather. Because what do you expect me to say? He's himself, and so am I.
While we can't pretend that autism never happened, if you're a friend you'll humour me and only bring it up if I do first. Chances are, I won't. Chances are, I need a break. I need some F-U-N. But if I do bring it up, I'll trust that you will be there and you will really listen, even if you don't understand.
But whatever you do, please don't give up on me or my friendship. Chances are, I need you more than you'll ever know.
Image credit: Flickr - Wrote