I experienced a beautiful moment the other day, one that helps shatter some autism myths. My two boys and I were at a soft play area. They were both beetling about doing their thing whilst I sat down with a coffee and kept a watchful eye. In these situations I tend to keep just as much an eye on Bean as I do on Zoo. Despite him being the elder, his autism can sometimes mean “weirdness” which needs adult intervention.
So I was sipping my coffee and saw Bean sat down in the ball pit near a little boy. The boy’s mother was there with them and the child could not have been much more than one year old (certainly more baby than toddler). Now Bean is never aggressive but he can sometimes be a bit “enthusiastic” which can distress little ones. So I thought I’d better investigate. What I saw when I went over melted my heart.
Our Bean was sat opposite this baby and was very gently passing him balls from the ball pit. He was copying him as he gummed the balls and laughing. He then even tolerated the baby playing with big elephant (his favourite toy that goes everywhere with him). Next he ever so gently stroked the baby’s head. It was so sweet and absolutely clear that Bean really enjoyed the contact with this small human.
It is often said that people with autism lack empathy and so don’t enjoy contact with other humans. I don’t think this is accurate and this incident shows it. Bean clearly loved his moment with this little boy. I often see him looking at other kids playing with a puzzled expression. The thought has often struck me that he really wants to interact with his peers but does not quite know how to. Sometimes when he does interact it’s in inappropriate ways for example he likes to burrow into other kids feet or sometimes he clings on to their backs giving them a “cuddle”. He is trying to emulate the rough and tumble play he has observed but does not quite get it right. I have often seen a confused look on many a prospective play mate as they walk around with grinning Bean clinging to their back.
So perhaps with a baby it’s just easier for Bean? The interactions with babies are basic and Bean has had practice with Zoo. The rules for playing with very small children are pretty simple with no real nuances and complexities. He knows how to do this but finds the more complex interactions with fellow 4 years olds somewhat baffling and thus inaccessible. So it was a “safe” interaction that he is comfortable with. What was clear though was the pleasure Bean got out of playing with this little boy. Both he and the baby were smiling and giving lots of eye contact, there was a real human to human connection, real affection and real empathy.
Now I am sure that Bean’s need for interaction with other kids is genuinely quite a lot less than neurotypcial kids. Often he is quite happy playing on his own agenda but it is a mistake to dismiss his need for interaction completely. He does have the need, he does enjoy it and this is very good for him. The problem is that when he does seek it he often gets it wrong because he lacks some of the hardwiring in the brain to understand the rules of the game. Also, as he does not practice these interactions enough and thus fails to develop his understanding of the complexities involved. So it’s a bit of a vicious circle, he starts at an intrinsic disadvantage and then that means he can’t get involved and so build up the experiences to learn from.
If you think about the subtly of the rules of interaction, even between 4 years old kids, there are so many complex rules and regulations. These come naturally to the neurotypical brain, it is hard wired to instinctively pick up on and understand social rules so we just absorb them by osmosis without ever being sat down and taught most of them. This is now normal kids learn the rules of the game.
Bean does not have this instinctive ability to pick up on social cues and so can’t absorb the rules by simple observation and experimentation so he needs to be taught them instead. Given the sheer number of subtle rules involved teaching him these is a big task! Just pause and think for a moment about the rules involved in say the rules of appropriate physical contact between 4 year old kids. Why is foot hugging wrong but a simple cuddle fine? Why is foot cuddling ok sometimes if that’s the game being played? Why is it ok to cuddle a sibling but not a stranger? Why is it sometimes ok to cuddle strangers after all? Why is it sometimes not good to cuddle kids who you have cuddled before? Why do some kids want to be cuddled one minute and the next react badly? Now the answers to these questions all depend on the precise circumstances of the situation but if you think about it the rules are really complex with lots of caveats and exceptions.
One of the most amazing things about the human mind is that we negotiate most of these rules by instinct, barely thinking about them. The rules discussed above are for one tiny part of the social tapestry for 4 year olds who are still pretty basic social animals, just imagine how confusing being a teenager is going to be when no one ever actually even says what they mean! As neurotypicals we don’t have to think about these rules and we absorb new rules almost without thought as the situation changes. As we grow and become more complex social animals we just get the new rules of the game instinctively. It is precisely this instinct that is impaired in Bean and the more one thinks about it the more one realises what a disability this actually is.
So what our Bean really needs to help him out is a mediator. It requires an adult to help Bean negotiate the complex rules of social interactions with his peers. He finds doing this on his own confusing, babies are fine but his peers are just bit alien to our boy. So if you can ever help facilitate our boy interacting with his peers please do so. If he is behaving a bit weirdly (back or foot hugging for example) maybe suggest a different game? Maybe explain one of these mysterious, hidden rules of interaction to him so he can learn? One of his strengths is that he has a very good rote memory so learning such rules one by one is probably the way he will adapt. Also remember that, whilst he is often happy in his own world, he often probably does want to interact but finds it hard to do so. If you can help bridge the gap between “Bean world” and “normal” world it would be a wonderful thing to do as it will help our boy learn the game that others get by instinct.