This has been a topic on my mind for a while now. So I thought I would expand upon my thoughts. There has been a general understanding from those outside the Autism community that those on the Autism Spectrum are not social in the typical sense. The typical sense meaning that those that are social interact easily with those around them, make friends easily, and have little to no anxiety in comfortable social situations. Often when I am in a conversation about my son being on the Spectrum, it seems that the first perception seems to be that he is not social. There are probably many reasons for this. One being that he often will separate himself in large crowds. For example, we have had a lot of gatherings at our house in the past. When these happen, he will often go into another room and play the iPad. Sometimes he will engage with the other children for a period of time and then withdraw. Often these gatherings are noisy and a lot of children come. Another reason this is perceived often is because in typical social situations my son may growl instead of using words, sprint in the opposite direction, or lock his jaw, etc... These are not always typical reactions that people expect so a perception is made. However, often these reactions are due to a either anxiety, excitement, or a desire to engage. When he is really excited he may do repetitive behavior (toe dancing, hitting his stomach, or verbal noises).
I have seen him put himself in uncomfortable positions and fight his anxiety because his desire to interact is that high. He has learned coping skills over time and become more socially aware of what other kiddos may not understand. Two years ago, for instance, he growled at everyone or screamed when someone engaged him. Now he will stay put often and fifty percent of the time give a reply with his dinosaur greeting as well. (:
As a therapist, I have come in contact with a lot of kiddos on the Spectrum, and I see the same desire. Often I see anxiety come from sensitivity to others' feelings or the chance of misunderstanding situations and doing the wrong thing. However, the desire is always there. The desire may not be to have 100 people around, but 1 or 2 is sufficient. The "typical" response may not always come but again the desire is always there to engage.
So how can we bridge the gap in understanding and awareness with this issue. Here are some thoughts:
1. Whenever this idea is presented, I think it is an opportunity to EXPLAIN, EDUCATE, and give the opportunity for that person to get INVOLVED. For example, If someone says to me "he doesn't seem very social" I can then explain that he does desire it, but he needs to engage on his own terms, and for that person to continue trying and not give up or think he is not interested.
We have had several family friends to do this very thing. When he has not given a response 25 times, he might begin the 26th time. Now he has several family friends that he will engage with easily because he has been given plenty of opportunities from the person to do so.
2. Know your child's limit with social interactions. Children are often unaware of their own limits until they learn what they can or cannot handle. We learned this through trial and error. We know that he does his best interacting with one friend over. When we have more than that, we need to devote our time to joining in the play with him and not just socializing. Also time is important. He does his best when he is not tired or hungry of course. But also play dates that are around an hour.
3. Prep your child for interactions. We do a lot of role playing of situations for his developmental level. We do mini-plays, and I play different types of friends with different interests and personalities. I also prepare him for play dates because they are not a part of his normal routine. We will put it on his schedule or we will talk about it starting a few days ahead of time. This is a suggestion in the book as well.
4. Don't make your child feel bad or draw negative attention to non-typical responses. This is tempting to do at times when we as parents get wrapped up in what others may think. But draw attention to any positive behaviors and reward and give praise to any interactions big or small.
5. Give your child the confidence and the tools to say and do what they need. My son withdraws when he has had enough or is over-stimulated. This has taken practice for him moving from having a meltdown to withdrawing for some quiet time. We have worked hard to let him know it is ok to do that and to know how to do that. We have also given him a picture board with different choices for calming or sensory input choices. This has worked well, and he often will do things on his own.
6. Finally, set goals for your child's desire for being "social" that are attainable and that he/she wants for himself. Often I know as a parent, I want a lot of things for my children that are not a necessity and that they may not share the desire for. I always ask myself is this something he wants, and will this make him happy?
Just my thoughts on the topic of being "social."
Until next time,