I have lost count of the number of times that someone has approached me, both in real life and in cyber space, to talk to me about a child who is quirky and challenging. “I think my child may have some form of autism, but the teacher (doctor, SS teacher, insert some adult here) says his eye contact is too good for autism.” Or, “I am a teacher, and I have a child in class who…”
I am usually given a description of the child’s behavior, sometimes a long one.
These children appear to be interactive and conversational; most of them read and manage some schoolwork, so they slid by without scrutiny until behavior got in the way. I see a lot of these kids in homeschool settings, and I have heard, “Public school kindergarten was a disaster.” too many times to count.
I have a way of cutting through the descriptions to ask them about a core issue that a lot of ‘our’ kids exhibit. No, it’s not part of the DSM diagnostic criteria. It’s my personal litmus test.
I ask, “How much talking do you have to do for him? Is he the child that isn’t paying attention, so you have to keep him on track with your words and ‘talk’ constantly? Does he wear you out because you have to remember that he doesn’t pay attention so you must do that for him to keep him on track? If you lose your voice, is he lost?”
The answer has always been “yes”. Every time.
My advice: Perhaps you need not worry about whether he needs an autism diagnosis. Perhaps you need to begin to change how you use yourself with him. Quit talking. Lose your voice. Begin communicating in other ways. Non-verbally. Slowing down and being quiet will be infuriating at first, because the child doesn’t know how to interact non-verbally. People around him have been compensating for his inability to “non-verbal” and he has zero experience at it. “Non-verbaling” is a foreign language to him.
I ask, “Does he control everything?” The answers, again, “yes”.
Children who are unable to join are controllers. The natural compensation for not being competent at joining is to take control. To lead. The other behavior we tend to see is the child will lurk on the sidelines, on the periphery, and watch, never quite able to come alongside the others in a group.
Sidebar to consider: Children who are constantly talked-to, directed verbally, corrected, over-corrected, chastised, etc., may have low self-confidence. From their perspective, they can’t do much right. When you do everything for the child, the message you send them may be, “You can’t.” “I don’t trust you.”
Shifting your communication style to one that is quiet, verbally speaking, yet rich and expressive in all other ways, while slowing down to allow the child time to process this new language and take his own thoughtful, active response, will give him practice, naturally, in being active with his own attention and with coming alongside others.
Slowing down while using few words and little “talk” is what we do with babies and toddlers while they are learning. And, with some of ‘our’ older children who acquired words and “talk” in place of ‘non-verbaling’, we need to shut off words and “talk” in order to go back and give them experience in becoming active in all things non-verbal.
Typically developing kids have thousands of hours of practice at non-verbal interaction by the time they are pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Quirky kids may have very few hours of practice joining, coming alongside, and ‘non-verbaling’, because when a child does not do those things, the natural response of the adults around him is to talk to him more and to do for him that which he should be doing for himself in terms of attention and participation. Yes, being quiet and slowing down is a challenge. It was for me. It takes the focus OFF if my child and puts the spotlight right in my eyes, on me. My child’s development depends on how many opportunities I can offer her to practice, her development depends on how I make myself “possible” for her to join at non-verbal levels. (Thank you: Dr Steve Gutstein, Dr Rachelle Sheely, Dr James D MacDonald, Dr Nicole Beurkens, Bill Nason, and Tom Brown helped me understand these concepts and I am grateful to them.)
I had yet another typed conversation recently (the fifth in a couple of months – this is a very popular topic for me recently). I began cutting and pasting from old conversations to save time. And then I thought, why not write about it? Perhaps other parents would benefit from the very things that have helped us at our house.
If you are exhausted from having to talk too much to keep your child on track, here are some thoughts for you that come from our experience, mom-to-mom (or dad), ideas that have made a world of difference at my house:
Stop talking to him. Drastically reduce the number of words you use. Your silence requires a new level of attention for him. Your “talk” robs him of practice paying attention. “I don’t have to watch for cues and clues; Mom tells me everything.” When kids don’t watch us, don’t reference us for meaning and information, we parents naturally slide into a role of over-compensating, usually by over-talking to keep the kid on track. It grows learned helplessness. To begin to remediate, slow down and be quiet while communicating richly in other ways. The less you speak, the more he has to reference you using his eyes and his attention. The more you speak to keep him on track, the more passive he is in terms of attention. The less you speak, the more active he is.
Offer him opportunities to join you and be competent with you at non-verbal levels instead. Communicate very richly without using “talk”. Set the table together. Do laundry together. Move furniture together so that you can vacuum underneath. Carry laundry baskets together, you on one side, he on the other, as you go from room to room to gather dirty laundry or as you deliver clean laundry. Hold a trash bag together to go from room to room to gather trash. Carry a heavy watering can together and walk around the yard watering plants together. All of the coordinating your actions with another in terms of table setting (you hand him the plate, he sets it on the table) or some other PHYSICAL activity will begin to give him the experiences and practice he needs to feel himself taking an action, to feel himself an “active participant” – it’s the practice he needs in order to slide in next to the boys in Scouts and join them in a ‘doing’ activity…
You have to BE. QUIET. You have to SLOW YOUR ACTIONS DOWN SO THAT THEY INCLUDE HIM, SO THAT THEY ALLOW HIM TO BE AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT WITH YOU. “Talk” puts him into a passive position. Attention is PHYSICAL first. He needs to *feel himself taking an action* in “concert” with an action of yours. You hand him a stack of dirty clothes, wait for him to notice, reach out and accept it, and put it into the washing machine. He needs to feel himself turning his own head, shifting his own eyes, his own attention, searching for his own information, and he cannot do that if you TELL him everything he needs to know. Be quiet. Slow down. Look for opportunities for him to be active with you.
Think roles. A role for him a role for you. You GIVE the plate to him, he TAKES it and sets it on the table. Roles: giver/taker or sender/receiver. If you can’t sense two roles, then he can’t either.
You do have to plan ahead for the extra time chores take. Use as little direct prompting as possible. “Doing dishes is more fun when we do it together.” Think of what roles you want for the two of you, and begin. Start a pattern. Hand him a clean plate, he puts it away. Hand him another clean plate, have him put it away. After you’ve established a pattern, change something within the pattern (this is how they experience flexibility!!!) Hand him a fork. Or hand him the plate in a funny way, behind your back or something. When you offer a slight difference in the pattern, he has to make an adjustment with his own action and his own attention to accommodate that – it gives him practice with “how people are” but in the most basic, foundational steps.
You can even decide to begin Monday to give yourself the long weekend to observe yourself and see just how much you talk and look for places to slow it down that will work in your day without disrupting too much.
There are moments with my children when I feel exasperated. Dysregulated. Where they are moving too far ahead of me (physically or mentally) and I want them to come back so we can think through a challenge together. My instinct is to yell or to criticize because the frustration is talking so loudly. The better (more challenging, for me) response is to be quiet and wait for them to notice my silence, to reference me, and when I have their attention again, we can begin again, together. I’m not always perfect; I’m a work in progress, and you are, too. Don’t expect perfection in yourself. And don’t expect the process to be a short one. Just begin. Begin offering non-verbal opportunities for joining. One will lead to another, and that is what some of our children need to experience and practice.