When Jack was three years old, we enrolled him in pre-K. I had researched the bejeepers out of schools. I knew that my child had physical challenges, was behind on skills, and that he could be hurt easily (fall down, get pushed over, things like that). I also knew he was easily overwhelmed by noise and other kids. With all those challenges, I still wanted him to achieve independence by going to school, just like any other kid.
Six months later and a diagnosis of autism, the first thing our psychologist advised us to do was to take Jack out of school. But, but … what about socialization? How would he learn how to make friends? How would he pick up on social dynamics? How would he learn social skills?
Taking Jack out of school was the single best thing we did for him. I was scared. I was worried. No one else I knew was doing this. No one could assure me that my child would be okay.
But he is more than okay. Jack is friendly, assertive, curious, will ask anybody anything, loves people, likes playing with friends, loves going places, and loves asking people things about themselves. That’s a social kid.
So how does an autistic child get social without school, without social skills classes, without social stories?
1. Use one-on-one relationships.
Remember not that many years ago when children didn’t go to school until age 7? Remember well before that when children grew up in rural, agricultural areas and didn’t go to school until much later? Remember hearing about children who worked on a farm (like Abraham Lincoln) or in a factory and didn’t go to school at all? Children are pushed into school younger and younger, not because it benefits them, but for valid financial reasons – because so many families need two parents’ incomes.
We tend to think that schools with large groups of peers are how children learn to be social. But we forget that children learn from one-on-one relationships, not from groups. It starts when they’re babies, that intense, individual relationship with mom or dad. That kind of learning doesn’t end when they reach three. It doesn’t even end when they reach seven at school age or teen years, those years when they are stretching to find their individuality. We think they want to be left alone as a teen, but that’s when they need an intense, individual approach even more so they won’t feel isolated or powerless from social pressures.
One-on-one socializing is vital for autistic children because they are emotionally sensitive. In a group, there are too many emotions, too many opportunities to catch anxiety and fear. In a group, autistic children must spend their energy defending from so many emotions and group dynamics, or simply go underground, become withdrawn, from absorbing all the emotions. A one-on-one relationship protects autistic children from stress. It allows them a safe space to interact and develop emotionally and socially.
2. Stay at home as much as possible.
Structure the day so that autistic children can spend as much time as possible at home. They need downtime, much more than NT children do, to regroup and re-energize. Being outside the home, being with a group, being in public places – those things exhaust emotionally sensitive children. When they are that depleted on a consistent basis, they do not have the resources to focus on relationships.
At home, use as much time as you can with one adult to one autistic child. This allows the adult to focus on on a calm inner state, to give present-moment attention, to channel positive emotions. That calm, positive presence will give the autistic child an opportunity to try out his emotions and relating, to see how we react, to participate in a back-and-forth relationship.
3. Find your child’s areas of expertise.
Autistic children have an incredible ability to find things they like, things they are curious about, things they want to explore. Service providers give these interests negative labels like perseverations, but these areas are important for autistic children. Younger children may find water, doors, holes, vents, drains, garage doors, keys, numbers, or a particular movie interesting. Older kids continue finding their own interests.
We parents need to turns these interests into “areas of expertise” by encouraging and exploring them with our children. By “expertise,” I’m not suggesting that autistic children will win awards or become professionals at it. These areas are the key to something more important. An area of expertise gives our children something to feel really good about. They’ll get lost in joyful exploration of the area, using it for fun and learning. They’ll become masters of the area, either masters of exploration, information, connections or patterns. And when they master it, their way, it will give them a feeling of confidence, something to feel proud and competent about. This self-confidence protects autistic children against negative messages, but it also serves as a launching pad into relationships and socializing.
Use this area of expertise to interact with your child and with other people. One of Jack’s areas of expertise is car make and models. We explore cars together, looking up pictures, videos, collecting toys and keys. We ask the cashier, the garbage man, the bagger, the mailman about their cars and keys. Before Jack could ask verbally, I asked for him.
Speaking of language, it may take us longer to unwrap areas of expertise for non-verbal children, but they definitely have them. Explore these areas with them. Non-verbal children can still make connections and relationships via their areas of expertise with an AAC device or with you as their interpreter. They need the same joy, same confidence, the same opportunities to relate with other people that any child does.
As you uncover areas of expertise, make a list of them for your service providers. Tell your service providers, medical professionals, and educators about your child’s area of expertise. Ask that they talk about these areas during the visit and to include these areas in therapy and in lessons. Share these areas with other people, friends and family, in front of your child. Brag about them. Show them and others how amazing your child is.
Autistic children are social beings, just like any children. But they are are much more emotionally sensitive than other children, which means they become easily fatigued in group situations and in public places. The right environment and framework allows them to form relationships and develop social skills. Using the home as their base, one-on-one relationships as the context, and areas of expertise as the content filters out the stresses that autistic children experience. These three steps give autistic children a supported environment, an environment that is right for them, so that they have the framework and confidence to explore socializing and form relationships.