Eye contact. How many times have you heard that a person with autism will not be able to make eye contact? Eye contact is actually just a part of the big picture – a person with autism will have problems with communicating and interacting socially. That means the person with autism may not be able to volley a conversation, may not emotionally respond as a conversation dictates, may not involve themselves in a conversation at all and/or they may not make eye contact. There are many other aspects to how we relate to one another, simply said, a person with autism will have problems interacting and communicating socially.
Declan has spent most of his playtime at playgrounds by himself. Aloof, alone, involved in his own world or playing with me. More recently, he sees children his age playing and he wants to play with them! So that is pretty cool. However, he is not able to say “Hi! Can I play with you?” Instead, he approaches a new playmate with a smile, a hug, a touch, a mild pinch, he will throw sticks at them, or he will do the “put my face an inch from your face and smile as big as I can.” And in general, the new playmate(s) will tolerate him for a short while. Declan doesn’t say, “let’s play tag” or “I am having fun!” He continues playtime with the random smiling, hugging, mild pinches, stick throwing, random touching until his new playmate has had enough.
Recently at a playground, a girl had had it with Declan. He kept following her, she kept trying to lose him and finally she just yelled “GO AWAY!” Declan looks at her and yells back, “I AM PLAYING WITH YOU!” I am always a foot away, and try to coach from the sidelines with: “Declan, no touch. Say, “Hi!” etc. This time, “Declan, let’s go play in the sand.” He looks at me and yells, “I AM PLAYING WITH HER!” I let him know the girl no longer wants to play and try a couple of other ideas for him to come with me, but he is fixated on this girl and will not leave. The girl runs away, he follows again and so she hits Declan low and quick in his side. Declan is ECSTATIC. I’m sure he is thinking, “A hit game!?!?!? How cool is this!?!?!” I say, “Declan, no hit.” But he doesn’t hear me, and hits her. She runs away, Declan follows. I turn around to yell for Bobby or Cate to come help me entice him away. I turn back around and the girl is on the ground and Declan is standing over her, jumping up and down, smiling and laughing. Probably thinking, “I won the hit game!” Not a great social interaction.
Playing with friends is a work in progress for Declan. Declan didn’t understand this girls verbal and non-verbal social cues. He needs to learn how to socialize, the rules and themes of social communication and interaction. These things do not come naturally to him. 2 years ago he didn’t even see other kids. So I am super psyched he is ready to play! It is important for him to be able to get out and play. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources available for people who have difficulty reading, understanding, participating in social situations and we will definitely be using those when Declan is ready.
And eventually, Declan will make eye contact with you. In most cases, he will enter a conversation with his head down. It will stay down for some time. Ask him about Spiderman, ask about the toy he is holding – he will warm up to you. He will eventually look at you. But, unfortunately, like the movie “50 First Dates,” you may leave your time with Declan as the best of friends and then have to start over the next time you see him. And it’s not always that he has forgotten you, it is that he has to start a new social interaction each time he sees you. As for now, this mom who coaches from the sidelines is going to have to get in the game. My plan? I am going to try to capitalize on one of Declan’s many strengths. His ability to mimic and repeat what he sees and hears. But that, is another post entirely 🙂