Elizabeth Obih Franks, has a beautiful, non-autism, inspirational blog called Mirth and Motivation. Every day, Elizabeth provides a wholly refreshing perspective on different subjects, writes with philosophical artistry and provides inspiration to all who read her posts. Recently, she posted about Masks. Truthfully, at first, I thought- meh – actors use masks. Why would I be interested in this subject? Oh, if I’d only turned on my brain! At least I knew enough to know that Elizabeth’s writing is powerful, and so I read. And, as usual, I was humbled by her prose.
Elizabeth got me to thinking. Masks are phenomenal tools to teach a young ASD child the beginning of the complex nature of social interaction. A lack of social interaction is the primary deficit often discussed in describing a person who lives with autism. Part of the gap an autistic person faces, according to everything I’ve read, is an inability to recognize non-verbal cues and to tune into and understand the emotions of others. Masks can help provide a visual link with the concept.
As I first began to ponder the idea, I stumbled. Masks are about hiding. Hiding means you represent one thing to the public while believing or feeling or understanding something else inside. Would I be trying to teach him the complexity of misrepresentation? Of lying? Would I be teaching him not to trust?
Well, yes to all of these things. But, lying is bad, Karen, you say. Why would you teach a child about lying?
Lying and trust are intertwined opposites. Once you have been lied to, you tend not to trust the lier a second, third or more times. (Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me!) While I don’t want to teach my son to lie, I do want to teach him about lies. I want him to know that people lie. He must learn to, at least, suspect a lie. He must pull off the mask and see underneath.
Naivety leads to victimization. Not just for autistic children but for any naive child. Since ASD children tend to take things literally, they must be especially aware of lies to avoid bullying and pain. To coddle and coo is nice as a baby, but when they become old enough to go to school, children should learn basics of what to watch out for in order to avoid being hurt. I want to promote my own son’s growth, his development and his strength. Not his naivety.
I must step up to the plate and teach him about the ugly things in life as well as the good so he learns it in a safe environment. If I do not do so, I set him up for a hard slap in school and in life. It’s nice to pretend that childhood is innocence and beauty but if I do not give him the whole picture, I do him a disservice to preserve a falsehood of my own. That is not fair.
My son is learning about recognizing emotions through facial expression. This is one of the very first building blocks to learn about social interaction. Clearly, he knows what can make a person happy, sad, angry, sleepy, or scared, even if he is unable to articulate it well. He knows this information from his own experiences.
Now, when I add in a mask, it gets more complex. But I cannot give up on teaching him here. He cannot believe by seeing a smile, all faces will be happy all the time.
To me, to ignore the complexities of socialization is like teaching him numbers and how to count and never teaching him math. While the layers get harder once you master the basics, learning goes on. It should go on from recognizing faces to understanding the use of emotions in social interactions. I think mostly this happens in the form of stories. Children are asked questions during story time to help issues of socialization.
But are these children really learning? Or are they simply answering their teachers with what they innately know. NT children, for the most part, can pick up the nonverbal social cues without actually being taught. My child needs a class or two or ten.
And thus, I am back to the concept of masks. Masks can be used to teach small children that what is on the outside is not always what is underneath. That people can tell you something but not mean what the words say. I want to explain what could happen if one does not express himself in a true way but, instead from behind a mask – what the result of one understanding versus another can mean.
I can think of lots of ways to look for multiple meanings in a simple action. Sure, I can’t protect my son in every social scenario but I think I can teach him some basic tools that could help on a regular basis. We can do this in a variety of ways including books, stories, pictures and masks. We can give our kids so much more awareness of their own in settings with peers. That kind of awareness will give our kids confidence and self-esteem.
Unmasking the hidden meaning in social situations during the early years may do wonders for an ASD child. If it is done with slowly, with increasing complexity, it may be absorb easily and much quicker than it does with adults. Masks may provide a visual way to teach a child about a very difficult subject.
[Maybe this has already been done. It just struck me as a very useful tool! One that is easy, inexpensive and a hands on representation of some otherwise, difficult issues.]