One of the things that brings me joy is my work with children and teens who have Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When I tell people that I tutor and coach people with ASD I often get quizzical looks or outright questions of why I would want to do something like that.
I often get asked “How do you deal with the behaviours?”. The same way I would deal with the behaviours in a child without ASD. I look for the cause. Behaviours are not the problem – they are the symptom of a problem. The child who cannot sit still is not fidgeting because they want to be disruptive, they are fidgeting because something is making them uncomfortable and they don’t have another way to express it. One of the most common symptoms of ASD is a delay or difference in communication. Some children with ASD never speak, some will talk your ear off about their favourite topic but be unable to answer questions about their day or make casual conversation. If a child with ASD is exhibiting a behaviour such as crying, screaming, or pulling at their clothing, I try to figure out what is causing them to be upset. Something isn’t right in their world and they are trying to communicate that with me. Often the behaviours will disappear when the root cause is dealt with. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated. When you’ve been bitten for the fourth time in 30 minutes by a 10 year old with a very strong jaw, you can lose a little perspective, but I try to remember to detach myself and attempt to figure out what the behaviour is telling me.
There is a misconception that people with ASD are not capapble of expressing love, or any emotion, or that they are locked inside their own world and refuse to come out. In my 8 years of experience working with numerous children on the spectrum, I have never found a child who can’t or won’t express love or gratitude or happiness. Some express it in ways that are different from what you would expect from a neurotypical child but it is still a valid expression of emotion. I have had some of the best, warmest, hugs from kids with ASD so no, not all kids with ASD are incapable of showing emotion.
And sometimes, they break your heart. Recently, I was doing a tutoring session with a boy who has Autism. We were talking about different ways to solve a math problem, and why it’s good to have more than one way of doing something. All of a sudden, he turned to me and said “I don’t think like other people. I wish I did, so they wouldn’t think I’m dumb”. My heart just ached. It turns out he’s been having issues in school that his parents, EA, the teacher, and I missed. He has had a few group projects lately and there have been some tensions in the group (as there are with all group projects) that have been made worse by him underreacting or overreacting to a situation. The situations have been dealt with but the perceptions of his classmates have been altered. Some think he is weird. Some think he is loud. At least one of them thinks he is dumb. How do I know this? Because this sweet, wonderful boy overheard some of his classmates talking about him at recess. He is very quiet when he wants to be, and has learned the art of blending into the background in order to disappear when he is stressed out. He tells me he was sitting beside the stairs to a portable at recess and overheard some of his classmates complaining about being “stuck” in a group with him – they went on to say that he has “crazy ideas”, and “doesn’t help in the right way” (what IS the right way? Isn’t all help good?) and “must be stupid since he doesn’t talk much”. I asked him when this conversation took place – over a month ago. He has been carrying this around for the last month, afraid to give voice to it lest another person agree with his classmates.
I pushed aside the math homework, we had a chat about how differences in thinking are what make the world a better place to live in, how some of the greatest minds in history have been people who think differently, and about how what we see and hear is not the only truth. I explained that his classmates were wrong about him, and that they were wrong to talk about him (or anyone) behind his back. We discussed how he could handle a similar incident in the future. We made a plan. I wrote a note for his EA and teacher, letting him read it before I printed it off, and he and I had a talk with his mom so that all of his support team were on the same page. He doesn’t want anyone to talk to the classmates in question, and I can’t really blame him for that. He’s feeling better about himself and his teacher and EA are going to talk to the whole class about ways to make everyone feel welcome and why saying mean things isn’t okay even if you don’t think the person is there to hear it. He’s also going to take on a specific role in future group projects – he likes to listen and is good at taking notes so he suggested that he would make a good recorder. This gives him a specific task that he can excel at which should help his self esteem and help his classmates see his strengths instead of his challenges. I hope the strategy works and I’m honoured that he felt safe enough with me to tell me of his heartache. I know I can’t protect the kids I work with from having their feelings hurt, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could.