April is autism awareness month
Day 7: Friends
Depression, Social anxiety, addiction, all well documented mental health disorders, are linked to and exacerbated by loneliness. Loneliness and social anxiety may be chronically intertwined, creating a vicious cycle of isolation and fear of isolation. Now throw non-verbal autism into the mix and you have a recipe for some serious potential mental health needs.
Social isolation with autism is not unusual, Dylan is socially isolated.
Now this isn’t because he isn’t at school.
When Dylan was at school he was absolutely terrified of the children he was schooled alongside.
The noise, the unpredictability and lack of compassion sometimes from children within special schools terrified Dylan.
There were known episodes of aggression and violence from other children which were put down to just being ‘one of those things’ with children with additional needs.
Please be aware that being in the company of others isn’t social inclusion for some children; being in the company of others can highlight the feelings of exclusion and not ‘fitting in.’
These incidents scarred Dylan mentally and physically. Five years later and with Dylan no longer at school he is confident, sociable, less fearing and generally more interested in the wider world than he was in a school environment.
Dylan doesn’t need a peer or someone to sit next to.
No, Dylan needs a mate, like a friend. Someone his own age to do things with, spend time with, to be a model for him with behaviour and to just ‘hang out’ really.
Dylan’s interest in other people is increasing – even if he isn’t always sure how to show it. If he sees a group of children playing a computer game or kicking a football at the park he will stand and watch at a distance. People usually notice Dylan quite early on; he skips and flaps when he’s happy and people will often see him and either stare or pretend they haven’t seen him. Some giggle and point out to their friends ‘look at him, what’s he doing?!?’
With Dylan’s growing confidence he is drawn to children a similar age to him, an awkward age group who often struggle with communicating themselves let alone with someone who’s different. I understand their confused looks or not knowing what to do in this situation.
I understand this isn’t a mean or unkind reaction,
it’s true; it looks unusual,
what is he doing?
And more importantly as a young person what can you do?
Let me tell you.
It’s the Easter holidays so let’s use a friendly kick around with a football in the park as an example.
First off, Dylan will watch you play but won’t approach you, he can’t speak and doesn’t know how to initiate contact with people so when he sees people engaging in an activity he wants to join in with he will stand back and watch, hoping to be invited to join in. Most social interaction is initiated by either Mark or I to facilitate and we are happy to be approached to see if Dylan would like to play but be aware that he can also answer for himself.
If you see Dylan watching you playing, look at him, acknowledge him, maybe even a smile. It’s fine to watch him jump and flap; it’s his joy, you can enjoy that with him.
It’s fine to watch, it’s not fine to stare.
Remember: a friendly smile can make the difference between watching and staring.
If you don’t mind Dylan joining in on your game; ask him. You will need to approach him though, if you call out to him from afar he won’t realise that you’re speaking to him and probably ignore you.
It helps if you take the ball with you as a visual prompt for what you are inviting him to come and play with you.
Dylan uses an iPad to speak. This means when you approach Dylan and speak to him he will immediately break eye contact and get his iPad which is strapped to him.
This isn’t him ignoring you although it can seem like he is rude it is him preparing to answer you.
His iPad is security locked and takes only a few seconds for him to unlock and open the app but it will take longer than if a verbal person was answering you.
Dylan won’t mind the lapse in time between interactions, it helps him to listen and process what’s been said.
He might look away as if he is thinking – he is, Dylan isn’t often spoken to by someone he doesn’t know and it takes a couple of seconds for him to filter out the different look you have or the sound of your voice to be able to get the process the message in your speech. Again this takes a couple of seconds but he will then answer with his IPad.
He won’t mind showing you his speech app if you ask him, it’s actually pretty good and he is really fast when he wants to say something with it.
Dylan can hear you and if you speak clearly and kindly to him he will understand and answer you. (I imagine the answer will be ‘yes please’; Dylan might be non-verbal but he likes his manners!)
Once playing he won’t tackle and run with you like your friends, he will probably just stand closer to the game and continue to skip and flap, happy to feel closer to the group.
This is just him watching and taking it all in but he’ll still feel like he’s playing.
Dylan has strong imitation skills and by watching you play with your friends, it is helping him. It is nice to slow the game down for a second to pass him the ball so that he can kick it back but if the game is faster paced than that he is also fine just watching from the side-lines.
Mark and I try to provide Dylan with as many opportunities for integration as possible but the world is a big and alluring interest for Dylan. It’s an interest bigger than Mark or I and as Dylan’s confidence grows so will his desire to approach and interact with others.
To seek experiences, to expand his social circle and to hopefully make friends.
Please prepare your child to accept mine.