Helping Your Autistic Child Deal with Young Peers
My daughter, A., is an only child -- at least, for now. While for a brief period of time she really wanted a sibling, she has now decided she is better off without one, and dislikes the fact that Thomas and I are considering trying for a baby sometime in the not *too* distant future. We've had many conversations, of course, about how she would still maintain a right to her own privacy, her own space, and her own stuff, which would be off-limits to a younger sibling unless she decided she wanted to share those things (this is very important to A.) and I have assured her that she would remain important and loved, and I would make sure I still spent lots of time with her and that she still felt special, even after the baby comes (don't all kids have this fear?) Still, she remains skeptical about the entire situation, and I don't blame her -- it would be a very, very big change.
So, unbeknownst to my friends and family, I've been doing my best to acclimate my daughter to the company of young children by taking full advantage of learning opportunities that come up when young children are present at events and gatherings. (And they thought I was just taking any opportunity I could to hang out with their awesome kids! ... Okay, okay -- that's true, too...) In the process, I've developed some theories about things that parents can do that may help their autistic kids better interface and cope with younger peers. I'd thought I'd share what worked for me in the hopes it may help others!
1. Let the kids just be in the house together at first.
Have you ever read the book The Little Prince? The Fox in this story tells the Prince that he wants to be tamed, and that the Prince must come every day and sit in the same place -- that if he does anything else, it might scare him, and the Fox will run away. I think this is similar to the way autistic kids first react to new people -- or, at least, this is how my daughter tends to react to new people. If possible, I try to let her have several visits where minimal interaction is demanded. Sometimes it takes months -- even years -- before she "warms up" to someone, but that "warm-up" almost always happens as long as A. has her own space. A great example of this is when we visit our friends, the Blevinses, who have a daughter who is almost three and a brand new son. We've spent several afternoons and evenings over at their house, outfitting A. with computers and video games and permitting her to "set up shop" in the office guarded by the baby gate. After several visits where A. would play apart from the group, yet close enough to hear and see the child from a distance, she finally warmed up to the young girl, and started attempting to talk to and interact with her. With time, A. went from being entirely indifferent to the little girl to exclaiming "I'm in a Cute Zone!" and giving her hugs. I think a great deal of this is due to the fact that I let A. "get used" to the child on her own terms, over time. (She still has a little while before she warns up to the newborn, however!)
2. Encourage parallel play, no matter the age.
One of the most important lessons I learned from the psychologist who diagnosed A. was the importance of adapting parallel play for an autistic child. Dr. Allen was the one who suggested that, in order to make a connection with my daughter, I needed to take it very slow. First of all, I needed to just sit with her, to get her used to my presence. Eventually, I could start doing whatever she was doing -- side-by-side. If she was stacking blocks, I could stack blocks beside her. After she got used to several play sessions of this modified parallel play, I could then interject myself into her play sessions -- stack a block on top of her block, or hand her a block to stack next. Once she was fully acclimated to that, I could then try to change the routine, or encourage her to do something new. Dr. Allen suggested a similar approach to everything when it came to introducing A. to something new, so I adapted that approach when helping A. socialize with others. After she's had a while to warm up to a child, I encourage her to stay in the same room while doing her own thing -- at least as long as she seems able to tolerate it. Which brings me to the next point...
3. Be in touch with your intuition, and know when to push your kids further.
Ever since A. was born, I've had numerous professionals tell me that I know my daughter best and I am the expert when it comes to her moods, quirks, personality, and capabilities. I've honestly often fought against this concept (possibly because I just can't see myself as being an expert of anything!) but I have come around to believing it to be true. As parents, we are also advocates, listeners, and interpreters for our children, and we need to be able to trust our instincts when it comes to diffusing a potentially volatile situation or pushing our children outside their comfort zone when we feel they will be all right. A great example of this is when we were visiting family this past Friday evening and I encouraged A. to play with a toddler cousin. She was not impressed about the idea, but reluctantly agreed -- and she did an amazing job. I had a feeling she could handle it, and I'm glad I gave her the little push she needed to engage in an amazing development activity.
4. When encouraging interaction, assign specific tasks.
One of the trickiest things I find myself telling my daughter is for her to "go play" with someone. Often, it's difficult for her to understand exactly what that means. At others, she (rightfully) assumes that she should introduce the child to her specialized interests -- and often the other child is unfamiliar with or simply not interested in those interests. However, when you assign specific tasks, it helps give clarity and direction to the playtime. For example, in the situation with her cousin on Friday, I told A. to play trains with the boy for five minutes. This gave A. a very definite thing to do, this put her in his realm of his interests, and this also gave A. a time limit -- the promise that she wouldn't have to do this forever. She happily played trains with her cousin -- albeit making them shout Monty Python and the Holy Grail quotes at each other -- and she even continued past five minutes and waited a long while before she asked to quit. Later, she was playing on my iPad next to her cousin (engaging in parallel play again) and I suggested that she show her cousin how to play the Magic Piano app. Not only did she show him this and many other games, but she also tried to explain notes to him: "This is Do, see? Do. And this is Re... Wait, you're not paying attention!" (I'm not sure this three-year-old was quite ready for advanced music lessons!) It was a great experience that they both enjoyed, and I was able to express my pride to A. after the fact which I hope helped develop her self-esteem.
5. Monitor closely, and give your kid a needed break before they get too frustrated.
This is absolutely key, and it goes back to that idea of intuition again. Be in tune with your child, and intervene right when you know she's about to hit her limit. A. Is VERY good at video games, but she gets frustrated when she tries to teach younger kids how to play these games. She has little patience and has a hard time understanding why they don't get it. Fortunately, A. is very good at signaling me when she's really had all she can stand of interaction with a younger peer. "I'm just not good at teaching!" she'll exclaim in exasperation, or, more bluntly, "I just can't take any more of this!" It's my job as her advocate to intervene at this point, to redirect the other child, and to let A. go off and take a break where she will not be interrupted, and where she can recharge and relax and get her "engine levels" back in alignment. Fortunately, the parents involved have always been aware of the situation, and have done a great job of helping me redirect the younger child after A. abruptly leaves the play.
6. Provide age-appropriate explanations of your kid's need for space.
I am absolutely an advocate of explaining autism to people involved with my child -- from teachers, to parents, to kids. Even if you don't feel as if you can go into a full-fledged explanation of the condition, I really think it's a good idea to explain the situation to the younger peer once your own child has disengaged from playing with them. After all, it's easy for a young child to misunderstand and get their feelings hurt if the person who was just playing with them suddenly no longer wants to play with them and effectively "shuts them out." I had this situation come up with my nephew a couple of weeks ago when we were visiting my grandmother. He was very interested in interacting with A., but after a while, she needed a break. I let her go back into the bedroom and shut the door. The boy kept asking where she had gone, and I explained to him that she needed a "time out." "A time out?" he asked. "Is she in trouble?" "No," I explained. "She's autistic, which means that sometimes having a lot of people and noise around is just really too much for her, and she needs to take a break from it." However, simply saying "she just needs some alone time right now," or even more simply, "she just needs a break," would do the trick, as well.
Of course, even with all of this, I haven't been able to convince A. that a young sibling would actually be a good idea. I think this may be because several of her peers at school are jealous because she doesn't have any siblings to annoy her. :-) All the same, I think these steps have really helped her interact with other family members and friends, and have helped smooth out social situations which might otherwise be hectic or awkward. Hopefully, these steps will be able to help someone else, too!