This post originally appeared in October 2009. In conjunction with our discussion on @thecoffeeklatch about manners, etiquette and social convention I reoffer this blog up for your perusal.
One of the issues that invariably occurs with children on the autism spectrum is the fact that they can't read facial expressions. They have no ability to discern the difference between happy, sad or mad. It is a life long struggle for them to be able to read these signs and it is one of the reasons that many of them have such profound social problems as they get older. One of the out growths of not being able to read people is the "He's looking at me." issue. I always picture Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, threatening that unknown assailant while he posed in his mirror. Unfortunately for many children on the autism spectrum "the look" is so very real and does engender fear. What it does then is trigger that fight or flight response in our children.
When highschoolboy was little, when he was in nursery schoool, before we even knew that he had asperger syndrome, we would have to watch him in public places. Practically everytime that we would sit in a restaurant or even hang out in a store he would yell at some baby that they were looking at him. Now with highschoolboy that really wasn't a good thing because he would feel threatened and as mentioned in earlier posts highschoolboy does not have a flight response to anything, except maybe homework. We would have to move him to the other side of the table or remove him from the place completely. It wasn't until much later on in years that we added it all up. As I always try to remind myself noone knew that much about aspergers when they were little and noone even knew that "the look" was a red flag moment.
So what do you do. As I mentioned above the immediate reaction is to remove the child from the situation. If he cannot calm down then it is time to leave. I think this is the best approach no matter what the issue. If your child is having a"look" moment, having a meltdown or just becoming very obsessive, it is generally best to remove him from the situation. Remember these children cannot process how they feel, do not understand how they are overwhelmed and do not even comprehend that they are reading the situations incorrectly. What they are feeling however, is genuine. I say go with that.
I can't tell you how many times we left stores with full grocery carts or toy stores without presents because of meltdowns and reactions to stimuli. I know that when collegeman was little I used to distract him with a box of entenmann's donut holes in order to finish my grocery shopping. Ok do not get all health-fanatic on me, it worked and I could get my grocery shopping done. In fact when highschoolboy was born and my mother took collegeman to the supermarket to help me out, the store personnel congratulated her on employing the entenmann's ritual. Like a grandma would never give their grandchild a sweet? (What are grandparents for if not to totally ruin a grandchild's appetite for real food!)
So we have distraction and removal but that did not answer the issue on how to address "the look" problem. Listien we all know it really isn't about "the look," but part of the overarching social issues that our children have. Yes, social skills classes are important. Putting them in situations where they learn to behave properly is essential. That is why I have always been a big fan of inclusion in school. One of the ways that children with ASD learn is by modeling. Watching their neurotypical peers interact with each other will give them an idea on how to behave. Now this does not happen without support. So it is important to remember that para support which would point out the proper behavior and proper way to figure out a situation is paramount if inclusion is going to work. Paras should never be used to corral your child just to get them through. The point of education is to teach and learn and it is important that these skills be taught properly.Training is essential for paras and many states also have education requirements for paras. For information about requirements for paras please go to Wrightslaw. They just did an entire newletter geared to that issue.
Now does that mean every child belongs in inclusion? No it does not. It just so happens that inlcusion has been the best thing for my boys. But remember collegeman started in a self-contained classroom in an out-of-district program. The program was specifically geared towards autism spectrum disorders. The program they put collegeman is called the AIM Program and at the time it only went up to 2nd grade. Today it has expanded through highschool. It helped collegeman organize who he was and was able to settle him to the point that they brough him back in district. It was a good segway for him at the time and such a program may work for yours as well. It depends on the child. But again, it concentrated not only on schoolwork but on those all important social skills and interpersonal development skills.
So we have self-contained, inclusion, social skills classes and finallly individual therapy. The boys were able to get individual therapy in the school and to this day highschoolboy still sees the school psychologist. Collegeman also has started with the aspergers support program at college. They meet with their counselors once a week to discuss issues and brain-storm ideas on how to a handle anything from getting their homework in on time, to strategies to use in order to sit through a pep rally. Now this does not mean they do not go for individual therapy. The boys get both. It is also nice because everyone does coordinate with each other so reinforncement is constant. Reinforcement is an essential element to success as well as making sure that everyone, every therapist, every teacher, every counselor, every doctor including pediatricians are on the same page. On another note: I know that private therapy is very expensive,especially since most insurance companies do not provide services for autism related disorders. We can only do what we can do. We do our best as parents that is all anyone can ask of us. But we can ask of our representatives more. Autism related supports and therapies need to be covered by any health program that you belong to. If you do not ask you do not get. Personally, I say DEMAND.
Lastly, I would like to discuss the reality of social issues and their on going, underlying, pain in the butt hindrance to your children's life. You know sometimes things are just what they are. Social skills are our children's bete noir and there is nothing we or anyone else can do about it except teach them what they have to know and to keep teaching them until we run out of oxygen and then we need to go get an oxygen supply tank so we can keep teaching even longer. Additionally, what is important to their independence when it comes to social situations is that they understand that this is an issue for them, but that it is something that they can overcome just like any other issue that they confront. Nothing is insurmountable. Highschoolboy no longer worries about "the look", thankfully we no longer have to worry about him ending up in a mohawk haircut channeling Mr. DeNiro, he is appropriate and talkative in class and has a best friend. Meanwhile, collegeman wanted to know how to figure out when someone could be enough like you to be your friend. Progress comes. Everything in time.
Until next time,