I looked up the phrase “autistic child” in Google Images for art-related reasons, and I noticed a common theme: pictures of kids turning away from their worried parents.
The pictures seemed to portray this as a social problem. Why would these strange children reject their poor parents this way? Do they recognize or love their parents at all?
Yet the reason for their behavior is far more obvious, and far more impersonal, in my understanding.
So what is going on? Let’s explore it by telling a story.
Jason sees his 7-year-old stepdaughter Kaori sitting on the living room floor, lining up rocks from her collection. She’s a mystery to him… He was told he should touch her arm and get close to her to get her attention.
Jason lightly touches her arm. “Hi, Kaori,” he says, leaning in close and smiling at her. His face falls when she quickly turns away.
Why does she always do this? Does she not love him? Is this what autism does to a child? Jason begins rubbing her back. “I love you, you know,” he says. “And I want to be your friend.”
Kaori looks at him, looks at the door, looks at him again, and runs away.
Jason is a well-meaning guy who feels confused by Kaori’s behavior. As a non-autistic person, he can’t intuitively understand why she would doing this. He interprets her silence and looking away as a rejection, fearing that she doesn’t love him.
“This is so confusing,” he might be thinking. “If only I could know what was going on in her head!”
But this is a work of fiction, so we can know exactly what’s going on in her head. Let’s take a look.
Mom’s new husband Jason is here. He smells funny, like that weird can in the bedroom. She knows he loves Mom, and she thinks he wants to love her too. He’s always buying her dolls, though she’s not sure what they’re for. Kaori is getting used to him, and she’s trying to get used to his smell too.
“Hi, Kaori.” All of a sudden, Jason’s hand is on her arm. She bristles at the uncomfortable light touch, unsure what he’s trying to do. She looks at Jason, and suddenly her face is right in her face, eyes staring at her like laser beams.
Kaori looks away immediately. Yikes!
Her mom turns on the blender in the kitchen. Kaori cringes. It’s too loud. She can hear the awful chopping blades as if they were right beside her ear.
Jason is rubbing her back. “I love you, you know,” he says. How can he focus on feelings when everything is so loud? Kaori wants to get out of here!
“I want to be your friend,” Jason says.
The blender hurts. Jason smells weird. His eyes won’t quit staring at her. Her big sister is talking loudly on the phone. Her brother is chewing with his mouth open in the kitchen, making disgusting sounds. Kaori looks at Jason, then away, then at Jason, then—She doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, but this is too much!
She can’t stay trapped here anymore. Kaori runs away to the safety of her room and shuts the door.
Does Kaori’s behavior make more sense now?
She doesn’t dislike Jason. In fact, she’s open to getting to know him, and she is trying to accommodate him and consider his feelings. Her behavior has nothing to do with her feelings about him, and everything to do with the sensory environment.
Let’s say it once again: Autistic kids turn away because they’re overwhelmed. They aren’t rejecting you.
Now you know why it happens. But how do you handle it? Obviously, non-autistics want to connect with their autistic loved ones. The key to having bonding time isn’t to get in their face more, but to relax and keep the environment low-key.
Here are some things that Jason didn’t realize he could have done:
- Skip the scented deodorant or cologne. Strong scents can be off-putting, especially up close.
- Touch firmly. Light touch can be distressing and uncomfortable. Autistics need to know what you’re doing, and a gentle but firm grip communicates your intent to hold on. (Though a vice-like grip can make people think you’re taking them prisoner… Just be firm enough to eliminate confusion.)
- Consider letting the autistic person initiate the affection. Try leaving out your hand to hold, or offering a hug while letting them choose to come to you.
- Avoid forcing touch. Don’t touch them by surprise, and let them skip touching if they don’t feel up for it.
- Don’t expect eye contact. Eye contact can be overwhelming or even frightening to autistic people. It gets in the way of a good conversation.
- Keep it low-key. Touching right away and getting in someone’s face aren’t always good ideas, especially if the person’s sensory issues are worse that day.
- Move to a quieter place if there are sensory interruptions. Sensory distractions can stifle conversation. If an uncomfortable noise starts up, try suggesting a change of location. Going outside, or to a quieter room (e.g. a bedroom) is often a good idea.
Kaori never intended to reject Jason; she just needed to be comfortable enough to relax and chat.
Most of these tips are about reducing sensory input. Don’t get in their face. Don’t force touch. Hang out somewhere quiet. When you decrease sensory distractions and discomforts, the autistic person will be able to dedicate more mental space to you.
You like happy endings, right? I do too. So let’s write one.
Let’s say that Jason decides to read up on autism. He learns how autistic body language works. He hears what autistic adults have to say. He reads every single wikiHow article about autism and has several “a-ha” moments. He skips negative websites like Autism Speaks and goes for stories of positivity and acceptance.
Jason thinks about what makes Kaori unique. He realizes that she’s sensitive to sound, touch, and smell. He notices that Kaori collects rocks and watches lots of yoga videos. He quits buying dolls, and as her birthday approaches, he looks at yoga mats, pretty rocks with labels from online stores, rock identification kits, and rock collection boxes.
Kaori sits in her room, rocking back and forth, thinking about pumice and why it floats in water. (Air bubbles on the inside that decrease the density, probably.) She hears a knock at her door. Then the door opens, Jason comes in, and he closes the door.
“Hi Kaori,” he says. He comes and sits down on the carpet next to her. “I wanted to come see how you’re doing, if it’s not a bad time. Is that okay?”
Kaori belatedly realizes that he probably wants a response, so she nods. She notices that Jason isn’t so smelly today. He just has the faint scent of conditioner and soap.
Jason puts his hand out on the floor. “You can hold my hand if you want.” Kaori decides to try it, so she takes his hand. He gives her hand a little squeeze, and it feels comforting.
“Kaori, I decided to read about autism, and I realized something,” says Jason. “I thought I was making it easy to talk to me, but actually I was doing things that made you uncomfortable. I didn’t know any better. I want to be your friend and I want to show you that I love you. I’m going to try to do things differently, and I hope we can figure out ways for us to talk that make you more comfortable.”
Kaori smiles. That sounds nice.
Jason points to her tablet. “I heard you like yoga videos. Maybe we could follow along with one together?”
Doing yoga with Jason? A huge grin spreads over Kaori’s face. She lets go of his hand and gets her tablet. She sits down next to him and opens up the video site, rocking back and forth as she considers it. She should start with an easy video. Jason’s just a beginner.
Kaori selects a good video and stands up her tablet. She presses play, and copies the pose that the woman in the video is doing. She looks over at Jason. He is doing the pose too. Kaori smiles.
Jason approached her in a sensory-friendly environment (her bedroom), gave her a bit of space, and offered to engage with her interests. As a result, Kaori began to open up to him. This could be the start of a beautiful stepdad-stepdaughter relationship.
How do you join in?
- Start slow. Jason gave Kaori a little time to adjust to his presence.
- Start a conversation or activity based on their interests. Jason offering to do yoga together was a pretty safe bet.
- Ask what’s on their mind. Kaori would have been happy to share her thoughts on pumice.
- Join in on the activity. In the first example, Jason could have helped line up the rocks or lined up something else next to her, and maybe asked about her organizational structure or what type of rock he was holding.
All of these are good options.
Connecting with an autistic child isn’t about making them interact with you in the way you think they should. It’s about learning how they feel comfortable, and joining in.