[I first published this story on May 10, 2011. Reading it back now, the only changes are that he no longer fits in the grocery store cart so we have no more cash register problems. We now have grab the laser scanner problems and hammer the debit card scanner with the attached “pencil-stick” thing problems. He still asks me who someone is in front of them. He still talks the ear off an adult but fails to initiate any conversation with children his own age. Luckily, the kids in kindergarten still like him and seek him out to play with. If only that stage could last forever…]
Everybody wants to be popular. Go ahead and deny it if you dare. The reality is that there is a certain sense of joy that comes from other people acknowledging you, if only to say hi, to friend you on Facebook, to follow you on Twitter, to read your blog and best of all leave a sprinkle of social exchange, in the form of a comment. There is something about being liked that makes us feel better about ourselves. It validates us. It gives us self-esteem. It boosts our ego.
Social acceptance is part of human nature. It is no less so with my son. Well, it is a bit different but I would not say it’s less. The boy loves praise. He covets attention. He smiles and giggles, will get all up in your business if he knows you, and you don’t give him attention, and he will beam like a 1000 watt light bulb if you spend time watching him do any of his favorite activities.
As to his peers, my son is basically socially indifferent to them but talks about them at home. He will follow his fellow students’ moves during circle time songs at school so he can keep up. He covets his time at the gym class where he shakes bells and runs around the gym floor with people his size. He talks about the boy in his social skills class often. He refers to his friend “B” daily (even though he sees him – on average- once or twice every couple of weeks).
When he is with people his age, he simply initiates no conversation. Absolutely none. I have never, ever seen him initiate a social contact with a person his own age. Weird that. But true. Never.
On the other hand, every single adult in his life is someone he will seek out and talk to without prompting, on his own terms, in his own language. He talks to all his therapists. He loves Jessica and Billy and has opened up to a couple of my friends I see on a semi-regular basis although when our conversations last more than two minutes, he often tries to conclude them for me by saying “Bye! [insert name here]!” and then proceeds to try and physically drag me away by grabbing my hand.
Sometimes, he will go so far as to see a stranger, walk up to that person (dragging me by the hand) point to the person, look at me and ask, “Who is that?” Ninety-nine percent of the time the person singled out for attention will smile or laugh at the inquiry and some people actually introduce themselves to my son, then asking his name in return. He gives them an expression of stone, looks right through them or completely ignores them. I then, have to prompt him to say his name which he will then whisper ever so softly, requiring me to repeat it. Often, it is awkward, when we are standing in a line, and the person has either been rebuffed, is uncomfortable, or embarrassed that my son will ask who the person is again. Yeah, I don’t think Miss Manners will give us a thumbs up on that one.
Another social interaction, I have come to dread is the small talk chit-chat of the grocery store clerks. Sometimes, I use the self-check line with 165 items in the basket including a case of water which I have to lift out to scan, just to avoid the chit-chat the checkers will attempt to make with my son. Other times, I get sick of him trying to scan, punch buttons and get me to ring up my groceries in Arabic or some equally perplexing language that is not my native English on the self-check.
This is when I suck it up, and stand in the regular line, always warning the checker that he/she has to watch my son because when they pull him through in the cart (yes people – I still use the kids seat in the cart for him because it’s easier) he will reach for their cash register buttons. Some think it’s funny. Some think I must be Attila the Hun’s daughter and some don’t listen and he, inevitably punches as many buttons as the register has, causing the drawer to bust open on occasion.
The checkers at my grocery store, always try to talk to the little guy. What are you going to eat? Are these Oreos for you or your fat mommy? (Okay they don’t actually say fat mommy out loud). How old are you? (Oh yeah, that’s my favorite). He never answers anyone who asks him this question. He looks away. After prompting and modeling the answer, he may, on occasion whisper it.
The checker is thus, lulled into this belief that he’s a shy, reticent type, forget what I warned them about, and then see the Tazmanian Devil go wild for their keypad as they nonchalantly push him through. This is followed by the five minute delay as they check to make sure my son did not ring me up for a new car along with my groceries before submitting my debit card for approval. And yes, my own social standing for those in line behind me through these events, drops ever so slightly during these escapades. Even after all that, the checkers or courtesy clerks will reward him with a sticker of some cartoon vegetable grocery shopping at their store which he covets as an acceptance of his social skills.
Yes, my son is socially awkward but he doesn’t know it yet. He only knows that he gets applause, a laugh, a sticker or hug when he does something good. He works the audience for that. He’ll dance, repeat something for a laugh or seek approval. So, no matter what you hear about my kid with autism, I know that my son, who is supposed to be unable to reach social signals, is reading and working them, every single day.