Prior to my son’s diagnosis I knew nothing about autism. Zero.
So, I understand completely that most people have no idea how to approach or connect with an autistic child.
If autism wasn’t thrown in front of me like a speeding bus, I would be completely oblivious.
But it was, and I now have a bus load of experiences that have left me yearning for a world where people take more time to get to know the children in their lives who have disabilities.
Most people are friendly. They say hello and greet my son with a smile and a high five.
Some people will try the conventional approach of telling a joke or being silly. They will soon learn that engaging with my son does not fall into the “easy” category and will walk away.
Most typical kids can navigate a new environment relatively easily. They find their cousins or “cool” relatives and latch on for the night.
This is not the case for a lot of kids on the autism spectrum or with other special needs.
So, what would that niece, son, or brother wish family members would do for his or her special needs child during a family event?
Here are my tips:
Greet the child as you normally would. A hello and high five are just fine.
When everyone is settled at the event, scan the room for your loved one. What are they doing? Do they seem anxious? Are they pacing, sitting in a different room, clinging to their parents, or hiding upstairs?
When the child seems calm, go up and say hello again. I would suggest a soft and reassuring tone of voice. Get down to their level so they can see your face. He or she may not look at you, but will know you are addressing them.
Ask them how they are doing. Talk to them, even if he or she doesn’t answer. Put yourself in their shoes and try and figure out what they may be feeling. You can say something like “It’s hard to be around a lot people isn’t it? I don’t always like being around a lot of people.” “I remember playing with your mom when she was your age” etc.
Ask them if they want to go to a quiet corner nearby.
Always presume that they understand everything.
Find some toys or books that were taken from home. Mom and dad most likely have brought some sensory toys, books or other favorite items for the visit.
Give the child two choices and ask them which one they want to play with.
If it’s a sensory toy follow their lead as they play. Talk about what they are doing with the toy. How must the toy feel as they play with it? Share why you think he or she likes the toy. Ask if you can have a turn and share the experience.
If it’s a book, look at the pictures with them. Talk to them about what you see, try and feel out what they respond to. Do they get excited on a certain page?
If it’s an object like a train or a stuffed animal just talk about it. Mention the colors, texture, and other qualities of the object. Get playful, see if you can add a sensory component to the object, like riding a train up and down the child’s arm. It doesn’t have to be an hour long playdate. 10 minutes will do to start!
If at first you don’t break through, don’t give up. Try again at the next event.
Your loved one will remember you and your efforts.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment during holiday parties with your relatives. But try and remember those in your family who have a harder time enjoying the company of family and friends.
Perhaps It doesn’t mean they don’t want to, but that they don’t know how to.
What are your ideas on how to help family engage with your child? I’d love to hear.