The Denver Autism Wheel

“You can hardly tell he has autism!”

Posted on: January 11, 2011

Every kid needs opportunities to engage successfully with peers. For tweens with autism, it's essential to meet that challenge.

There are some sentences that are difficult to scrutinize, coming from people I don’t know well, and that is one of them. What is “autism” perceptually for people who know very little about it? And what do those perceptions say about the person with autism? I would like my Chris to be able to navigate social interactions successfully. When people tell me they don’t notice something “different” about Chris until well into an interaction, that says to me that he’s learning to anticipate the zigs and zags of casual conversation. And that’s good news. 

Chris is in the process of learning how to get along with his peers, teachers, relatives and strangers. He does it a little differently than his brother Luke does, and sometimes it takes more practice, but he’s learning. The key is to create opportunities for learning. 

But how do you do social skills training for someone who doesn’t “look disabled”? Honestly, I don’t know. Contextual disclaimer: Autism isn’t one-size-fits-all. I’m the mom of one boy with autism and one boy without autism. I’m not a special ed teacher or therapist. Everything I describe is an anecdote, not a prescription. Having said that, here’s what seems to be working for Chris, in his process of learning how to interact with other people successfully. 

1) We’re honest with him. Chris has known he has autism almost as long as we have. He knows it takes practice to get social skills down. He knows it’s easier for his brother to make friends (and it irks him). But he also knows that persistence is the best way to be successful, and he’s willing to keep trying. We encourage that persistence and try to reinforce that there’s a difference between persistence (using different strategies to achieve a desired outcome) and perseverating (continuing a behavior which has proved unsuccessful). 

2) I joined the PTO at Chris’ school. This means I know about events ahead of time and can plan for the family to attend. Chris gets the chance to see his teachers and staff outside the classroom context, and he gets to try his hand at making connections. Among teachers and school staff, he has a rich selection of patient people who will let him try to reach out, even if it takes a little longer than they’re used to. 

3) He joined the Cub Scouts. And Karl has taken the lead in being the go-to parent at meetings. There tends to be a higher number of boys in Scouts who are not very competitive, very aggressive. He has a chance to get to know his classmates in another context, and his classmates’ parents get the chance to know him and us. 

4) We joined our neighborhood pool association. We live in an older neighborhood that doesn’t have a home owners’ association, but there is a pool that kids frequent during the summer. Families join and pay dues, and in return, there are barbecues and parties, swimming and movie nights. We get another opportunity to meet kids and parents outside the school context, make connections (“Hey, I remember you from the pool!”) increase our family’s visibility and strengthen the community’s understanding of what Chris needs to be successful (which is mostly just a little patience and compassion, when you get right down to it). 

Part of our strategy with creating opportunities for social engagement includes creating an atmosphere of advocacy, and the more kids and parents in the community that know the family, the more likely they are to treat Chris with compassion. Putting ourselves right in the middle of the action makes it less likely that Chris will go to a school or neighborhood function and find himself among strangers. 

5) Chris attends a gymnastics class outside school. Strenuous physical exercise is vital for all of us to stay mentally and physically fit. Most kids participate in physical education in school, and that’s great. A lot of kids choose extracurricular sports as well. Luke is set up for Spring Soccer, and he’s awesome at it. But Chris doesn’t do group sports, and a lot of kids on the Spectrum don’t. Looking at it as a mom watching her son, the game moves too fast. The other kids get the rules and run around in seemingly arbitrary ways, and Chris has no idea what’s going on. OK, so group sports isn’t his thing. But he has to have a physical outlet somewhere. What happens when he doesn’t get exercise? An increase in the fluttering and hopping self-stimming behaviors. Why? Because that energy has to go somewhere. 

There is another compelling reason why gymnastics is good for Chris. Like a lot of kids with autism, Chris is very tall for his age. I have a suspicion that his bones grow more quickly than his muscles, so he tends to be inflexible if he doesn’t stretch his large muscle groups (arms and legs). Gymnastics gives him the chance to increase his flexibility. 

These are some of the social contexts we’ve introduced that have seemed to work for us. We have not sought out formal behavioral therapy or “special needs play groups” because we want Chris to have real-time, unfiltered peer-to-peer interactions, and he has the nuggets of social success already. That’s not to say that behavioral therapy and/or playgroups won’t work for other kids. But Chris, at 10, is getting a little old for “play groups.” Additionally, we would rather he cultivate relationships with peers in an organic environment (play groups tend to use more structured, scripted interaction activities, and Chris likes to “hack” scripted activities, so they are less useful for him than those he finds in the daily action of the classroom). If you want more information about how Chris “hacks” activities, let me know. It’s fascinating, and I’m still collecting observations about it. 

As Betty Lehman from the Autism Society of Colorado often says, “if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” What works for Chris might or might not work for someone else. Our philosophy has been one of reaching out to the general population, exposing Chris to new opportunities for interaction, keeping him open to leaving his comfort zone to meet new people. As with any child, Chris’ teachable moments are everywhere; now, it’s a matter of spotting them and using them to best advantage.

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3 Responses to "“You can hardly tell he has autism!”"

One of the other mothers in Danette’s blog carnival (sos4parents) plans to try Cub Scouts for her son. Nice that you can point-out the differences in that setting.

I especially want to congratulate you on suggesting two exercise options! Swimming and gymnastics are great for children and offer a context for social development!

We’ve found Cub Scouts to be a good opportunity for Chris. He gets to engage with some of his typical classmates in a different context, and they tend to be the quieter, less aggressive boys. Just yesterday, however, I was told by the parent of a 5th grader (read: making the move up to Boy Scouts) that the transition to Boy Scouts will require some research. There are fewer Boy Scout troops–they collect Cubs from multiple school feeders–and they could have very different policies on discipline and adult intervention. So: she should keep that in mind if her boy really gets into Cubs.

But Scouting has been very valuable for Chris and for me. I used to cringe every time I’d hear about a lost autistic child from a summer camping trip…and then sigh with relief when he was found and the parents clarified that he was in Scouts and knew what to do to stay safe until help arrived. Chris has been able to try his hand at pitching a tent, cooking over a fire, riding a horse, learning safety with BB guns and bows and arrows. For the skillset alone, it’s been great!

Stopping by from B of the B – this is a great post! It’s so frustrating when I hear people say this about my son. As if Autism has to “look” like something. Looking forward to reading more 🙂
And please – Follow us down the rabbit hole – http://www.autismwonderland.com/

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