Friday, May 8, 2009

Socializing Autistic Children

I had an email recently from a lady named Michelle who asked me what tips I could lend on helping with socializing on her son. I have done some research on this to add to what I already know and have used and I believe that, with diligence, all of these techniques together can considerably raise social function and interest of Asperger's and mid to high functioning children with autism.

The very first technique I learned was the "look at me method". In this, before you say what you need to say to your child, you start by saying "Tony, look at me, Tony, look at my eyes" until Tony complies. When he does, you praise that action, "Good 'looking' Tony", and if he doesn't look away, go ahead with what else you wanted to say to him. Obviously you want to use your child's own name, not Tony (just had to add that). If he does look away, start over again. Practice, practice, practice, and eventually he will look away less and less as he starts to reprogram in understanding that you really want him to look at you.

The next technique is play integration. Your child likely is fine playing on their own. So fine, in fact, that they have no interest in playing with anyone else. You are the first person who can change that. You must become your childs playmate. You do this very slowly and gently. Tony is playing with his blocks, lining them up and stacking them. Start by talking. "Tony, that's a great building you made, can I make one?" Do NOT give up when he doesn't answer you. Employ the look at me method. Don't give up on that one either, even if it takes a year to get him to do it. That's how dedicated you have to be, and how stubborn. Try to get Tony to hand you a block and show you where he wants you to put it. As a beginners phase, handing blocks back and forth can be a great social opener for Tony. Giving and taking is social interaction. Work your way through the meltdowns. You are going to have meltdowns. Blocks will be thrown, and there may be the biting, kicking, etc. Use the tools and techniques you have learned for dealing with outbursts. Some meltdowns can be dealt with, simply by not giving in. Yes, believe it or not, for higher functioning autistics, this can work. I dealt with it myself. Dealing with meltdowns is going to have to be one of my next blogs though, so I can concentrate on this. But you will have to deal with them, there will be resistance.

So why would he resist? Autistic children resist because when you try to teach them something new or get a new behavior it means CHANGE and no autistic child deals well with changes, even tiny ones. Hence, you just mustn't give up.The next technique is the use of social stories. If your child even halfway likes being read to, this is a beautiful technique. Get this, even if he doens't appear to listen, you can still read social stories to him, and you may even get a reaction after reading the same story enough times. You can write your own social stories for any behavior you want to teach (keep it simple and limited to just one behavior at a time), find them on the internet or even pay someone like me to write them for you. You can also find them at your library. One awesome writer of social stories is Elizabeth Verdick, author of Teeth are not for Biting. Here's an idea, if you have a biter (my son was), get this book and read it to your child every day for a month. Then come tell me what happened. My son didn't stop biting in just a month, but the occurence was cut in half. He did eventually, with the reminder phrase 'Teeth are not for biting', stop altogether. That's how it's done. The book only covers biting and things that teeth are good for. It's extremely simple and effective. If you present the idea enough times with the reminder phrase, it will have an effect. No, not all autistics will stop biting 100%, but it's sure worth the effort, even still. Once you have some good examples of social stories (your library or the internet are wonderful sources) anyone can write their own. Do NOT use too many at a time. One at a time until you get them understanding the reminder phrase you establish is good enough.

Now that you have those techniques in practice, immersement is going to be necessary rather than avoidance of social situations. Will you still have to leave a restaraunt or two? Yes. But once again, it's the practice that is important. Socialization is part of our development and autistic children are delayed or blocked on this aspect. With delay, you can still work on social skills. Blocked are generally in low function or near low function autistics. This blog is not meant for them. Just to be clear. You can certainly try, with the above mentioned techniques, and if you make headway, then wonderful, come tell me about it because I want to know!To continue, take you child out into minor public situations, like going to the park or a small play center. Establish a connection with other parents on the spectrum and set up play dates. Constant monitoring will be needed and you will have to intervene a lot. My son had trouble with grabbing up and throwing things on the ground, like sticks and sand. Every time he did this, I removed him from play and gave him social reminders. Then I followed up with time out (sometimes works, but depends on how you word it), then sent him back in to play. When it comes to other parents who give you and your child weird looks, just tell them straight out, my son has autism and we are working on his socialization. Every time I ever said that to a parent, I either got "okay" and they mind their own business, or "really? I always wondered about autism" then you have a chance to educate someone and that is a beautiful thing. Still, you have to be up on your feet following your child around, ready to coach or intervene until Tony shows more and more ability to social play on his own. Any time he hits another child or commits something on another child, you need to show you are an interested and caring parent. This is a demonstration for your child. Always apologize to the other parent, remind your child or get him to apologize (yes it will work after a while), then go back to business. Some days are going to be bad ones, and you'll just have to take him out of play for the day while telling him why. Keep taking Tony to social situations, don't avoid them because of his behavior, you'll only help his autism hold him back. If he never experiences enough socialization, he will never socialize or increase function. And that is my answer for dear Michelle, I hope it also helps many of you. Feedback is welcome, thanks.

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