We spent some time at the park today. Joey was very interested in two older girls- well, one was almost eight, and the other was probably no older than 12. The other kids were all little ones, the kind that Andy likes to take around by the hand and show things to. While Andy was indulging himself, Joey kept trying to engage these two young ladies. They clearly were at a complete loss for what to do. He tried several different approaches to engaging with them. First, he noted that the girls were tall, and he liked them. Then he tried to teach them some sign language, and the Signing Time theme song. Then he tried to include them in some of his own play, like asking if they wanted to make a mulch cake and sing Happy Birthday, or announcing he was an ice cream truck, and asking them to get in.
None of this worked. The girls retreated to a corner and were kinda staring at him as he satisfied himself by making a mulch cake (a pile of mulch that you then pretend to eat), then teaching some of the little ones how to sign "black cat." They were whispering, and I was close enough to catch "he's so weird."
And I put the body language, the eye track, and the words together, and realized they were talking about Joey.
"Oh, its OK," I burst in on their huddle from my place by the climbing tree. "He's just trying to play with you. He's autistic."
"I don't know what that is," the older girl replied, but there was a cue, a way she kept looking at him, and now at me- she wasn't dismissing him. She wanted to know; she had made the statement as a question, and was now awaiting an answer.
I have no idea how you explain autism to a 12-year-old girl. I did my best. I explained he had problems communicating and speaking, and so didn't know how to ask the girls to play, or how to include them in his games, and was doing the best he could. The younger girl intimated that she thought him weird as in scary, and I assured her he wasn't going to hurt her, he was just trying to say "Hi, I'm Joey, let's play!" the way he knew how. If they wanted to play with him, they would have to join his game, or explain what they wanted to play, and I would be happy to help. They were unsure, and decided they wanted to do "girl stuff".
But it was a telling conversation. Here was a child not that much older than Joey, but the differences between her social connections and communication and Joey's ability to play and communicate were startling. I am sure they thought he was somehow intellectually challenged, because his behavior and language was so unexpected and unpredictable. The fear was startling, too. I don't think of Joey as scary at all, especially at the park when he is in a decent mood, like he was today. The older girl's interest in him was also something I found notable; she didn't just reject him outright. She wanted to know more about him. I need better language, simpler terms for talking about Joey to his peers- direct but inclusive, language that makes it clear that Joey does things in his own way- so does everybody- and helps his peers find common ground, a point where they include him, and he includes them. How do you explain to a 12-year-old that if they can find a way to include Joey, he's a lovely person to know and play with, and would be thrilled to have friends and to be a friend? That "weird" is really just "different", and we're all different? How does one communicate such a idea in a child at the stage when being the same as their social peers is so important?
And what can we do to help Joey make those connections he so very much wants, clearly wants? What skills does he need to be able to engage his peers, and join their games? What is the disconnect that results in that label of "weird", which becomes the brick wall between Joey and people around him? What crucial social skills are missing? What makes Joey's attempt to engage so very different than how I jumped in on the conversation of these two girls? Why was my engage tactic successful, when his was not?
These are the questions we are now asking, in thinking about the road ahead, the plans for IEPs and programs and therapies. How much frustration can we mitigate, how many skill gaps can we fill, before Joey is 12 and feels that intense need to fit in somewhere, anywhere? What tools do I need to provide and teach as a safety net, if he finds that, like his mom, he fits in nowhere?