“It is accepted as a logical truism and empirical fact that children and adults with autism demonstrate some delays, deficits, or atypical characteristics in the frequency, type, and quality of social interactions and social relationships with other individuals. This characteristic was a central feature of the original description of autism (Kanner, 1943), and has been a common feature of virtually all diagnostic classification systems since. Available research suggests that differences in social development characterize children with autism from the earliest months and that delays, deficits, or atypical characteristics in this domain may be a “core feature” of the more general syndrome.”
That quote, from here, sums up one of the major fears I have for my son and his future. Simply put, he lacks social interaction skills. When kindergarten ended, he had just begun recognizing faces of his peers. He started attending birthday parties with less difficulty. He knew names. He knew what his peers liked to do. And then, like an ax to a tree, it was all chopped off. Kindergarten was the highest grade his school taught. Every single kindergartner in his class had to go to a new school for first grade. None of them, to my knowledge, landed at the same school.
When Tootles began at his new school, after Labor Day, he was with 22 other students he’d never seen before. He was starting from scratch. WIth a social interaction disability.
Tootles had a very good friend from kindergarten. A boy who called Toots his best friend. They had quite a few playdates over the summer. They just had another last week. This boy is sweet and kind. Toots adores him and works very hard to “follow your friend”, switching activities when his BFF gets bored or wants to try something else.
At each playdate, Toots’ ABA tutors facilitate the play, make sure both boys share, mediate different ideas, and best of all, help them communicate and interact with each other. The tutors take data concerning how well Toots responds to his friend, both verbally and nonverbally, and how well they play together. Programs are run to teach Toots how to read his friend’s face (sad, bored) to ask appropriate questions about switching games or activities. Programs were run to teach Toots to play hide and seek (yes, he’d never played before he was just about 6 years old) and tag and other ‘playground’ games.
The hope was that all of these “play skills” would transfer to new environments.
In little bits and pieces, the play skills came into use as he entered his current first grade class. Before school, he was asked to join a game of tag. At recess, he was playing hopscotch. But, he was still, basically, a loner.
Cue the awesomeness of a good school with a great teacher.
The teachers at Toots’ new school, hand out “warrior stickers.” The school “mascot” is a “warrior”. “Warrior stickers” are coveted items that a student can earn by doing an act of compassion, or something outstanding or noteworthy. The teachers pass out these stickers if, say, for example, a child is hurt on the playground and his peers help him get up or soothe him or her after a tumble.
But what does this have to do with Toots’ social interaction, you ask? Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, shortly after school started, a couple of children approached Tootles on their own to play. With his ABA tutor by his side, prompting, Tootles “played” with his peers, kicking a ball, tag, playing with foam shapes, and other games, building some social interaction. Seeing that these other children took the initiative to play with Toots on their own, his teacher made quite a big deal out of it and awarded some “warrior stickers” in front of the class.
Once the stickers were handed out, the rest of the students wanted the same. Every day since that time, different children ask to play with Tootles, during recess. When I first heard the story, I thought, they’re just using Tootles to get the stickers. I did not feel good about it. How will this help him, I thought. But then, a funny thing happened. . .
As these “sticker seekers” initiated the request to play with Toots, they learned how much fun Toots can be. He needs help to stay focused. He sometimes needs prompting to stay with his friends. His 1:1 tutor provides this. At tag, everyone wanted to “tag” Toots and he was getting confused at the number of kids and what he was supposed to do. His tutor intervened, setting new rules restricting the kids from tagging Toots until after three others were tagged.
In the quest to “use” Toots for a warrior card, all the kids were laughing – with Tootles, not at him. There were smiles. There was fun. There was communication and good times. The “warrior stickers” became bonuses, secondary to play.
Toots was a hot commodity for all the wrong reasons, at first. But now? The others are learning to play with him. The good ones, which are nearly all of them, are sticking around. He’s making friends. He’s laughing. He’s being accepted.
All because a teacher saw an opportunity and used it for the benefit of, not just Tootles, but everyone. Now I just need a warrior sticker – because I want to give the teacher the biggest one of all.