For many people, particularly teachers, the first real experience with autism comes as part of an intervention in a "situation". After all, aside from odd mannerisms and odd comments, many autistic children can appear quiet and non-participative - this can easily be mistaken for shyness.
The real problems begin to surface when an extraordinary event, such as a meltdown or shutdown occurs. Even if no such event occurs, a simple friendly intervention from a teacher can sometimes result in a unexpected response.
When such events do occur, they can "sour" the relationship between teacher and child - and sometimes between the parents and school too.
Recovery is a long process of "walking on eggshells" for which most teachers don't have the time or patience,
In this post. I want to look at some of the ways that you can modify your approach to children with aspergers syndrome to reduce those ill effects. I'll be concentrating on an approach under normal conditions, perhaps to encourage participation in an activity. I'll look at approaching a child in a meltdown condition in a later post.
Before approaching a child on the spectrum, take a moment to study their body language. It's true that autistic children have a great deal of difficulty expressing themselves non-verbally but in general, their body language can still be read. Most of what you've probably heard about the difficulties of non-verbal language deals with facial expression. Those bits are true. You can't be sure that the facial expression of an autistic person is really communicating their feelings.
For example, if the person is grimacing, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're in pain - or frightened. It could mean that they're thinking about something entirely outside the situation, that they're stimming or that they're actually happy. Tears and anger however can usually be trusted to be correct.
Take a careful look at how the child is sitting or standing and watch how they react as you draw nearer. Try to look at things other than their face. For example, are they holding a wall, bannister or some other part of furniture? Are they attempting to withdraw into it? Perhaps they're even hiding under a table. These are clear signs that a normal "front-on" approach will end in disaster.
Instead of approaching them front-on, try to approach them gently from one side. If they're under a table or sitting at a desk, it's a great approach to sit beside them - not opposite them. This significantly reduces the issues of eye contact. If possible, reduce yourself to their height to avoid being confrontational.
Don't sit too close. People on the spectrum generally like a bit of space. They are easily disturbed by smells including perfume and deodorants and especially, don't like a light touch. I had a counsellor once ask me if it was ok to touch me on the arm. It was nice to be asked first but I felt like I needed to say "yes". Touch to us usually doesn't convey reassurance. It often simply increases the irritation of tactile stimuli.
If you're touching a person on the spectrum, chances are, you're doing it for your own benefit/reassurance rather than theirs.
As a general rule, people on the spectrum aren't too keen on small talk, so there's not a great deal of benefit to be gained from saying "hello" because you're obviously already there and hello is implied by the fact that you just sat down next to them. Of course, if you feel that you need to teach the basics of small-talk or manners, then a couple of conversation starters can be used. Just don't expect a major response.
Many autistic people have quite stilted conversation. They may not handle high-speed talk even though they often talk fast themselves. They may also take longer to reply than neurotypicals because they want to think about your question and their answers.
Ask most kids "how long have you been sitting here" and they'll say a "a while". Ask a person on the spectrum and they're likely to calculate the time.
Don't rush them. People with Asperger's and autism aren't stupid so there's no need to talk super slowly either. Just enunciate well and try not to rely on variations in tone so much as content. Be direct too.
While autistic people have little difficulty understanding the concept of metaphors and "sayings", they might not necessarily know when you're using them. If you tell them that you're "going to see a man about a dog", they're going to assume that you're going to a pet shop. Say what you mean and you'll be understood.
Direct Questions are Attacks
If you're approaching an autistic person and they seem agitated, don't sit next to them and start hammering them with questions such as; "Why aren't you playing the game with the other kids?". Try a more oblique approach first. For example, sit down and say; "That looks like a cool game that the kids are playing doesn't it?" You probably won't get detailed answers but starting a conversation in a light way will build trust. The response you get might clue you in to what the problem is; for example, "It looks fun but it's very noisy".
People on the spectrum often have high sensitivity to noise, smell, light and other environmental factors. It isn't fair to force a child with such sensitivities to join in an activity which ignites those senses. If you can find a way to reduce these sensitivities, then great. If not, just accept the situation and wait for a less sensory moment to include the child.
Perhaps you can speak to the parents about the sensitivity. For example, if they are sensitive to noise, they may want to try cancelling headphones or perhaps you can find quieter ways to engage the child.
Of course, the reasons for non-participation will vary and it's difficult to decide when the child is simply being lazy or wilful versus an actual sensory issue. The only clue is continued conversation.
If your initial comments don't provide you with an answer, slowly direct the questioning towards the activity without being accusatory. As the child warms to you, you'll find that the information they provide becomes more relevant and useful.
Next time I'll look at ways to approach a child in a meltdown state.