One of the hallmarks of autism is social impairment. The unspoken rules of social engagement were very difficult for Will to understand, and to implement. When is the right time to start talking and when is the right time to stop talking. One time to stop talking is when everyone else in the family is listening to the singers on American Idol. We had to work on this one for a few years. Many people have difficulty implementing these rules; with autism only more so. Will was very outspoken. He was very blunt, speaking whatever came to his mind about a subject. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” was a difficult concept. We had to be very explicit in our explanation of these Unspoken rules. Frequently, we had to give him non-verbal and quietly spoken cues. One of our cues was a non-verbal signal to lower the volume of his speaking.
We had to explicitly say to him that he should not answer every question in math class just because he knew the answers. He had to wait and let other students answer some of the questions.
On the other hand, Will had his own set of private rules that we were unaware of until we stumbled upon them. These rules had a purpose: they helped him make sense of the world and predict what would happen next. He always wanted to do things correctly and not make any mistakes.
Whenever he wanted cookies, he would always ask me how he many could have – every single time. Finally, I realized I had to put a stop to this verbal habit and say every time he asked, “How many do you think you should have? How many do you think is reasonable? Don’t ask me any more. I know that you are reasonable. When you want some cookies just take a few.” It took a long time for him to stop asking me this question. In later years, he would preface every question with, “May I ask a question?” When he got an assent, he would ask the question. We have been working on this one for many years. Just this week, I reminded him again not to say May I ask a question. “Just ask the question.” He is 24 and has graduated from college.
He became more aware of his habit of going on and on about things in his junior year of college when he had a law professor, who during every class, would go on “rabbit trails” about subjects unrelated to the class materials. I would get emails or texts remarking that this professor was going down the rabbit trails again. Insight.
Sometimes our ways of helping our children held them back in later years. For years my oldest daughter Marie would look at my face to to give her nonverbal information about social interactions. In order to improve her eye contact, we had her look at us. When Ralph would make gentle jokes or spin wild yarns, Marie would be confused and ask me if this was true. I said, “look at my face.” “Do I look like I believe him?” She then became dependent on my facial expression for information about what others were saying to her. I had to tell her to look at the person she was talking to and I had to turn my face away so that she was forced to look at the person she was talking to. She has improved tremendously in this area. College really helped her.
I write about this to explain some of the social difficulties to those who don’t understand the problems with autism. And I write these things for parents so that you can set your mind to the long journey that is ahead.