WITH LOWER FUNCTIONING AUTISM, BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS CAN HAPPEN. THE EFFORT NEEDS TO BE INTENTIONAL, NEEDS GUIDED CONVERSATION , AND A LONG TERM INVESTMENT OF TIME.
Generally speaking, there is a lot of information available about helping autistic kids, especially those with higher functioning autism and Asperger’s, develop friendships. But what about lower functioning autism? Some individuals may not have a grasp on the concepts of grades, hobbies, and subjects. What if there isn’t an interest such as music, sports or a hobby that can be shared?
The Cleveland Health Clinic suggests the following for helping high-functioning children with autism make friends:
Teach what a friend is (in comparison to a bully).
Build on a pyramid of ‘simple’ questions including “what is your name?” and “what grade are you in?” Then, deeper questions like favorite hobbies or school subjects.
Schedule real-world practice with a willing participant.
Build off your child’s interests such as music, sports or a hobby?
Plan for long-term success.
Some suggested methods can still work with modification.
Friend is versus a bully(we skipped this step)
Jess developed her own line of questioning at the grocery store check-out.
Real-world practice(see #2) Build off interests(see #2)
To develop a true friendship – #5 is essential. It’s a long-term investment that starts with a guided conversation .
Line of questions
When Jess started asking cashiers questions, at first it felt completely awkward. I eventually realized it was her way of interacting with other people because it was one of the only times she would readily converse about something that was outside of her own sphere.
At first, the main questions were:
- Do you have a dog?
- What is your dog’s name?
Then, as time went on and she got various answers from people, the questions got deeper. Sometimes people would answer that they had two (or 3) dogs. After that, she followed up question number one with the question of how many dogs the person had. Questions evolved to how old is the dog (her response – ‘that’s not too old, honey’) how big, and how loud is the bark.
Jessica discovered an interesting thing. Pretty much everyone either had a dog or had previously had a dog in their life. Wait a minute…did I say previous?
Oh man! The first time someone answered that they did not have a dog, Jess really honed in. She was not going to drop it. She had to know why not. Then it came. Their dog died. My whole body drew up into a knot full of dread for the cashier and for me. I was worried about how Jess would handle that news. Surprisingly, she did fine, and I supposed the cashier did too.
From that day onward, she knew if someone didn’t have a dog it was because one had died. Being an incessant investigator, she ALWAYS got to the bottom of it. Her trick? When someone said they didn’t have a dog, she would say, “But you used to.” Amazing! Almost everyone fessed up and told their story. She never got upset at the answers, just intrigued. Some died of illness, some of old age, and some got in the road. She also learned that some people had to leave pets at their parent’s house when they moved out. Did I say parent?
Finally, a second line of questioning. What’s your mama’s name? Where is your mama? How far away does your mama live? etc. Variation. Yay.
Real world practice
Asking cashiers personal questions was Jessica’s version of real world practice. When Jess was a child, we tried setting up play dates, etc., but over the long haul, she was not interested in other children. She always preferred the company of adults because she found them easier to communicate with.
Build off interests
By now it could probably be guessed that Jessica’s interests, at least when it came to conversations, were dogs and mama’s. Her interest at home was music. But music was not something she talked about much. In high school, she developed an interest in playing cards. Not really playing games, just ‘flipping’ cards.
|Jess made up a game she calls war. First, she deals the cards between herself and another person. Then, who can deal them back on the table the fastest? This was a successful avenue for connecting with peer facilitators at school.|
As I made myself become more comfortable with Jess interacting with cashiers, I was unknowingly working on long-term success. Although she has not built any long-term cashier friendships, it was her long-term practice at social interaction. She had been the one to decide to initiate conversation and I had learned to go with the flow. The scenario carried over in other social situations where I could facilitate guided conversation between her and a new person she was meeting. By me suggesting that she ask if the person had a dog, a conversation could be initiated. Most people enjoy talking about their beloved animals.
Jessica has established some friendships. Some pick her up and take her out in the community to do things. Jess loves it because it means she has her own friends and her own life which is something she likes to brag about.
A NEW RELATIONSHIP TO FACILITATE
|This is not a new relationship anymore, but it does need facilitating. Jess was thrilled to get a new cousin two years ago. Look at the sweet smile in this picture. She knows what to do with a baby – hold, feed, rock,change diapers, and baby talk|
|The bonding hit a bump in the road about a year ago. That’s when our little G was no longer a tiny baby and became mobile. He started doing his own thing, and playing a lot. Even before that, you could watch his little face and see that he knew there was something special about Jess. He would watch her in wonder and curiosity since she was the only adult that didn’t gush all over him, and didn’t make eye contact.
G & Jess have been politely overlooking one another for the last year, aware of each other’s presence, but not interacting.
G is extremely loving, a burst of energy, confident, stubborn, talkative, opinionated, and interactive. He cautiously keeps an eye on Jess and frequently asks me where she is. He is curious about the occasional bursts of happy shrieks that come from her room. When he hears it, he will look at me wondering if it is okay or not. I imitate Jess with a smile, and G smiles back and imitates too.
I decided it was time to have a guided conversation and start facilitating their relationship.
|G cautiously and spontaneously said something to Jess. She didn’t notice. He looked to me for reassurance. I told Jess, and she went to him to ask him what he said. They had a cute little back and forth where I had to interpret to each one what the other said.
A casual observer might not have thought much of it. But, I know that Jess enjoyed it. She intuitively connected the interaction to her ‘niece’ Audrey and said, “I wish Audrey would start talking like that.” I will continue these guided conversations. Facilitating this relationship is important to me. I want G to grow to understand Jess, be able to laugh with her like we do, and enjoy her company.
HOW TO – GUIDED CONVERSATIONS
The following is a summary of my suggestions regarding guided conversations for autistics that don’t fit into the ‘higher functioning’ category like my Jess doesn’t:
- It’s okay that guided conversations don’t always facilitate relationships. Facilitating social interaction is great.
- Instead of pre-planning a series of questions, let the autistic person be your guide.
- Learn to be outside of your comfort zone if your autistic person initiates public social interaction. It’s temporary, it’s brief, everyone survives, and it helps the rest of the world get first hand experience.
- Checkout lines worked well for us:
- Firstly – there is a captive audience
- Secondly – there is this thing called customer service that tends to keep people polite even when they are slightly uncomfortable.
- Thirdly – there is a built-in time-limit for all involved. A natural escape. (Although there were times that I nearly had to drag Jess out the door.)
- Don’t apologize.
- Shape the experiences as you go.
- Understand that there will be progress.
- It will be a never-ending evolution.