At its heart, autism is a communications disorder. The DSM-IV checklist lists "qualitative impairments in communication" as a diagnostic criterion.
My daughter? Check. Plus.
She also has - by anyone's diagnostic standards - a voracious appetite. I wouldn't call her a "picky eater" (tree bark, anyone?), but she can be fickle and demanding at times. Girlfriend knows what she wants.
So, chasing her into the kitchen yesterday, I found her ripping open a package of instant grits. (I didn't even know we had that!) Ever self-sufficient, she proceeded to dump it into a disposable, hot cup and pivoted around to, apparently, run hot water through the Keurig to complete her snack.
I know it sounds like she's an independent, little chef, but we do not allow her to operate anything in the kitchen alone. We know better. So does she!
What she didn't know was that our beloved Keurig didn't work anymore (boo hoo!), and I had removed it to try and return it.
I wish I could have captured the look on her face. The Keurig might possibly be the most important, frequented appliance in the house. Poof! It was gone!
What would your 8-year-old do? I imagine, at this point, many would call for Mom (I was standing three feet away), ask where the machine went, demand help.
I watched with curiosity. Ever resourceful and independent, my daughter simply turned to the refrigerator and filled the cup with water from the dispenser.
Of course, now her grits are ice cold (as well as completely over-saturated, but that's besides the point).
Now, does she ask for help? Uh uh. Oh, she's very frustrated, yelling a little, but she just decides to move on to the microwave - where our story must end with an angry intervention. No, my autistic 8-year-old is not allowed to use the microwave.
The whole incident reminded me of my years-ago Floortime training...learning to create a "circle of communication," a reciprocal, back-and-forth interaction.
Nope, not a single circle of communication going on here, but there were numerous opportunities to create them.
One Floortime strategy is to engage a hard-to-reach child using a "playful obstruction." Do something that will get their attention! Wear an unexpected, silly hat. Join the child while they are lining up cars, and then make the cars crash. Any resulting eye contact, interaction or response to the action counts toward your Circle.
No hot water? No coffee? You certainly have my attention!
Yet, communicating with me to help her solve her problem didn't even occur to her.
While she's come a long way, communication always will be hard for her. She's severely apraxic, so the actual act of speaking clearly is a huge obstacle for her. Sign language and augmentative communication devices like her iPad offer wonderful alternatives, and I am grateful every day for them. However, they only work when a person is motivated and interested in communicating.
Wouldn't you agree that communicating and interacting with me to solve her devastating, instant-grits problem was the most likely, obvious and best course of action?
Unfortunately, for her, it also was the hardest.