Picture yourself in country you’ve never been to before. In fact, let’s be more specific. Imagine yourself in Istanbul, Turkey. Those of you who have been there, just play along. You’re in the middle of a crowded market. The place seems to stretch for miles and miles. Every tent is packed with goods to be sold. People weaving in and out of the shops as far as the eye can see, chatting and bartering with the sellers. Elegant carpets bursting with color, white beaded necklaces dotted with cobalt blue, and the smell of tea surrounds you.
As you stroll from one end of the market to the other, each shopkeeper steps up to make their sales pitch. At least you think that’s what they’re doing. You see, you can’t be sure because they’re all speaking Turkish. You picked up a few basic phrases before setting off on your journey, but now that you are actually here, it doesn’t sound the same. The words come faster and the accents seem stronger. It’s not your language.
As you weave your way through the shops, you look back over your shoulder and realize you are lost. How much time has passed? The dizzying array of colors, sounds, and smells have thrown you off course. You walk up to one shopkeeper and attempt to ask if he knows how to get back to the main road. He looks at you, clearly confused and responds something in his native tongue. You shrug and attempt to mime out your question, gesturing awkwardly. He repeats what sounds like the same phrase, only a little louder this time. Finally he shakes his head and smiles apologetically, realizing you don’t understand. You move on to the next tent, and the next, and the next repeating this process. Each time you’re met with the same confused faces and even more confusing words. No one seems to understand what you are asking.
Are you feeling it yet? The fear. The anxiety. The frustration.
Suddenly someone taps you on the shoulder. “Hi, did I just hear you speaking English? Are you lost?” Sweet relief! Someone who speaks your language. They can save you. They will lead you back to safety.
So what does this have to do with autism?
I always wonder what it must be like for my son when he is trying to ask for something but his mom and I just don’t get it. Sometimes he tries so hard, but the words won’t come. Sometimes the words come, but they don’t make sense to us. Other times he just bursts into tears. There is a lot of pressure on kids with autism to adapt to the world around them. I thought up this imagination exercise after reading this eye opening article on understanding the spectrum (Read it! There are pictures). It gives just a taste of what it must be like trying to communicate with others when you’re on the spectrum.
It’s not enough to have empathy, though it’s a great place to start. How can we bridge this gap? Enter their world. That may sound like pop psychology mumbo jumbo, but I mean it. A lot of people tend to write off the odd things autistic children do as a simple side effect. Most parents of autistic children will tell you their kids repeat certain phrases, sounds, or watch things over and over.
What if some of those behaviors have more meaning? I believe those repeated behaviors are bread crumbs leading us into the world of our children’s minds.
My son loves quotes from TV shows and theme songs. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what he is saying especially with the quotes. For a while, he kept repeating the phrase, “What’s wrong Lilly?” This went on for months. We had no idea where it came from. Eventually we started to notice that he was always upset when he said it. Then one day we heard it as he was watching his Leap Frog video for the 900th time. Lilly, a character in the show, was crying and another character asked, “What’s wrong Lilly?” The emotions in the show matched what our little guy was feeling when he said the words.
Now we listen closely to what he is saying. My current favorite is “cheese and crackers” which he says a lot when he is mad. That came from an episode of Phineas and Ferb. You should see his face light up when we sing the Spongebob theme song together! It’s not educational, but it’s fun and he LOVES it. Sometimes just singing the first few lines snaps him out of a bad mood because he just has to join in.
The point is he is making connections. He is trying to tell us how he feels. It doesn’t usually come out the way we expect it to, but he is communicating. He is processing things. He is very much in there. I feel guilty for the times I’ve acted as if he wasn’t. I’m not alone in this discovery. In this article, Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney, Ron Suskind details the inspiring account of connecting with his own son, Owen. It’s a worthy read!
This approach really applies to all children. It just may require more deliberate effort when it comes to those with autism. I’m willing to bet that even children who are completely non-verbal are giving us hints and clues to their world and unique language. Maybe changing our perspective will help us spot those clues. Let’s pay closer attention to the things that our kids respond to. It’s possible that Mickey Mouse or Spongebob could be your guide and interpreter. Maybe it will be something completely different. It certainly won’t be perfect. But, we know as parents even the tiniest milestone is worth celebrating.
Now, imagine it’s your kid who is lost in that crowded open air market in Turkey. Now is your chance to be the guide who speaks their language. Now is your opportunity to enter their world and lead them safely home.
If you have a unique story of connection with your kids, we would love to hear about it. Please share in the comments.