Socializing comes so naturally for some people. They can smile, make small talk, and generate warm feelings with strangers as easily as they can with friends. For me, this does not come as easy. I can smile and make small talk but sometimes I feel awkward. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve offended someone. Other times, I feel I must simply be socially inept.
Then, there is my son. He does not make “small talk”. He will say “hi” fairly easily but if someone asks how he is or what he’s been up to, well, my son does not respond. He is not ignoring. He has simply moved on to the next thing that’s caught his eye. He does not understand social interaction – at all.
He will not engage and he definitely will not look at the person speaking to him. Unlike me, who stews in a vat of paranoia over whether I’ve offended someone or not, my son is completely and utterly oblivious to his social gaffes. He, truly, has no concept that he has offended anyone by completely ignoring their conversation with him. And thus, he remains without baggage, feelings of doubt, and is fairly happy, without social skills. As he gets older and becomes more cognizant of others, this will change. Not yet.
Many people think my son is cute. They try hard to make conversation with him. They ask him how he is, how old he is or what he’s up to. They tell him they like his shoes or shirt. No matter the question or comment, he does not respond. Even with those to whom he is closest, he does not respond. Don’t get me wrong. He talks. He just talks about something completely unrelated to what you have on your mind, unless you are responding to something in which he possesses an interest. If it is on his mind, at that very moment, whether it is an obsession or a memory, he might, maybe, respond. He does not leave his own frame of reference to discuss another person’s interest or conversation.
These are my son’s rules of social engagement, as I imagine he thinks them:
- See a new person. If I do not know the person and I am not interested, ignore him/her. If I do not know the person and find something interesting about the person, ask mom who the person is and point at them, making sure to get directly in the personal space of the stranger.
- If I know a person, wait for that person to say hi to me. Respond with “Hi [insert name here]. My job (as taught by my ABA tutors) is now complete.
- Resume talking about whatever is in my head out loud. Expect the person who greeted me (“Person 2”) to respond with the appropriate responsive echolalia or by agreeing with me or helping me to perseverate on my topic of choice.
- If that person tries to ask a question, ignore the question at all costs. It is interfering with my self-talk. Only when a therapist or mom or dad intervene by repeating the question at least 5 times, then give a quick, short, basic, very low volume answer. Immediately go back to what I was doing.
- Make sure to offer Person 2 the chance to “play” with me. Explain the rules of play as the other person watching what I am doing and extending excitement equal to my own. Do not offer a turn for a few minutes.
- When I do offer a turn, allow Person 2 30 seconds to a minute of play. If Person 2 does not return control of play to me, move on to playing with or doing something entirely different and ignoring Person 2
- If I am doing an activity I like and my parent or some other grown up interferes by forcing me to take turns with Person 2, I make sure to express outrage and anger each time it is Person 2’s turn by yelling “Fire truck!” at the top of my lungs as a clear cuss word.
- If Person 2 is a grown up more interested in talking to mom or dad than me, I make sure to interrupt the grown ups, by saying, “BYE-BYE [Person 2]!!” loudly and waving in their face. Do this a few times even if mommy or daddy says it’s rude because I do not know what this “rude” means and I need to keep moving and do something other than listen to grown ups talk about things I don’t understand. If the loud “BYE-BYE” option does not work, make sure to also give another non-verbal visual clue to the grown ups by pointing to the direction I want them to head. That should take care of it.
- If the parent should get upset because I am doing any of 1-7, tell the parent how much I love him/her and express remorse by saying “I’m sorry!!” as loudly as possible. If necessary add in the sprinkles of offering verbal “kisses” and “cookies” with hugs to avoid time out or other not good stuff like toys being taken away.
- All in all, avoid all socialization involving language, speech or verbal communication. Offer to play on a slide, swings or playground as an alternative form of communication. Do give eye contact and hugs when in trouble. Modify instructions as circumstances dictate. Bat eyelashes and give kisses as a last ditch effort to avoid clear parental discontent.
Repeat again. And again. And again. Most of all, look cute and innocent.