Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October Happiness Project-Friends; Also Thoughts on November 1

In continuation of our monthly Happiness Project, this month’s post is about friends. “Friend” is such a loaded word for people on the autism spectrum. Our children have either been characterized as not wanting friends or not knowing how to make friends. There is also the child who wants friends but is so rebuffed that they give up on making friends. Or as in the case of collegeman, has had those he thought were his friends turn on him and begin to bully him so that he just decided that there is no one in the world to trust. Luckily for collegeman, with years of therapy he has decided that there are nice people out there, but he is still unsure of how to tell if they will be a good friend for him or not.

So the issue is what do we do to help our children understand the concept of friendship? What do we do help our children learn to make friends? What do we do ensure that our children will also know how to navigate the social sphere of school and then the adult world?

The first place to start is in school and with social skills therapy. They can of course be one and the same. There is the social skills group where you learn how to interact and playact out situations. There is the social skills group where you discuss situations and how to handle them. There is the social skills group where basic skills are taught like turn taking and interacting during game play. There is the social skills group that teaches your child how to have a conversation. Then there is also the social skills group, called circle of friends (COF). COF is a group of both those on the autism spectrum and neurotypical children from school. They get together and talk about issues and learn how to support each other in different situations.

Now one of the nicer things that is sometimes overlooked about the COF program is the built in support system that most children on the autism spectrum do not have in school. One of the reasons so many of our children end up being bullied is because they have no one in school that has their backs. They are open to being the “other” just because well, they are the “other.” With COF there is that automatic group creation. Meanwhile the benefit for the neurotypical student is that they learn empathy and caring. They understand that your child is not different on purpose and that it is not something to make fun of but something to understand. They also recognize that when your child doesn’t “get” something it just means that they are in need of some extra help and most of the children in COF are happy to oblige. Of course the children involved are hand picked so that the therapist/counselor/social worker knows who would be the best fit, and it does really work. This really isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, knowing that there are children at school who are empathetic to your child goes along way in creating a truly conducive educational environment for everyone (and yes, mom and dad it is OK to feel relief that your child is not going to have to face nasty peers too. It’s OK that once in awhile we get to take a cleansing breath).

As I have said, HSB had a very different experience in school than his older brother. Instead of being the target of bullies and having no one to stand up for him, it became de rigueur to try to help him and in many cases (particularly the girls) try to fix him. I truly think it is their mothering instincts, no matter what feminists may say about it not being ingrained in women. It was so apparent in HSB’s case when he was dealing with the girls in his class there is no other way to explain it. The boys didn’t want to fix him; they just left him alone, which was fine enough for me. Actually interestingly there was one incident in first grade where HSB was picked on by one boy in his class. The other boys told me not to worry that they knew karate and would protect HSB. So I guess there is that protective instinct in human beings after all, as long as a parent doesn’t knock it out of them. (Unfortunately in one boy’s case that’s exactly what the parent did by forbidding him to have anything to do with HSB. The idiot woman actually even told me that she didn’t know why her son liked HSB. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.) And in HSB’s case, especially as he got older, the attention from the girls was not something he was going to reject in anyway shape or form.

Unfortunately as my boys got older there was a dearth of COFs and social skills groups. They seemed to end with middle school but interestingly enough there seems to be a resurgence of them for young adults with autism. HSB does have his speech therapy in highschool where they work on interaction and appropriate behavior, but as far as a group dedicated simply to social skills it doesn’t exist. I do think in many ways it is the age of the children. Now HSB does have a one-to-one who helps him and facilitates social interaction every day, but there is nothing specifically geared to a group or group behavior, even though there is plenty of group work in school.

Highschools require a charity component or community service element before a student can graduate. Why not make being part of COF in highschool one of the choices? Why is it always about the unnamed and faceless person at the food pantry or community center? Why don’t the highschools, churches, synagogues, and even the Boys and Girls Clubs have COFs as part of their choices for participation, graduation, confirmation and inclusion? Where better to start than with programs that are already geared towards teaching right and wrong and societal obligations?

Meanwhile we parents can help our children by making sure that they have the proper support in school so that they learn the skills they need to navigate the social world. It is doable and it is out there. Whether through social skills groups, COFs, after school programs or therapies in general, our children are capable of learning the social paradigm so that they can have friends and that terrific full life that is our goal for them.

On November 1 and Turn Off Social Media Day for Autism Awareness:

Friendships are something our children do want and our children do need. In fact I would even postulate that it is something all on the autism spectrum need or there wouldn’t’ be that outpouring of attention to social media and Internet interaction that makes the lives of so many on the spectrum so much better. I also don’t think that stopping social media for one day will teach the neurotypical world what it is like to have autism and what it is to be isolated and alone. The truth of the matter is for neurotypicals if they don’t’ have social media they can just go out their front door and easily start up conversations or speak to a friend. Autistics don’t necessarily have that option. So for November 1 to be a success then every NT would have to sit alone in a room without any human contact what so ever. That is just not going to happen.

By the way, I for one will NOT be participating on that day. I will be using social media as I do every day to try to educate people around me to understand autism and what our children feel. As far as I am concerned it makes no sense. Having been also very isolated when my children were very little, there was no social media, support groups and outlets for parents of special needs children, I know what it is to be so very alone and quite frankly I will not go back there again.

I know and understand the chasm of loneliness and separateness from society and have neither need nor use for it, for any purpose. The only thing to come out of isolation is selfdestruction.  It does no good to turn off your connection to the world. Isolation, even for the shortest amount of time, creates depression and if someone is very fragile even the smallest amount of depression can be devastating. I think to turn off your life is foolish and not well thought out at all. The truth is what should be happening is an outreach not a shutoff.

I also have yet to hear of any large push among neurotypicals to isolate themselves. The only ones who seem to pushing this idea are the very people who know about isolation and they are members of the autism community. You teach nothing by removing yourself from society. You also don’t need a “day” to give to an autism charity or any charity. Just open your damn bankbook and give something.

Meanwhile come November 1, I will be on twitter as usual and on facebook. If anyone needs help or an answer to a question, or a virtual HUG, I will be there just like every other day.

Until next time,