Our son had just turned four. We lived in the Netherlands, and, in accordance with common practice, he was starting elementary school.
Being expats, we had decided to enroll him in an international school with instruction in English, the stronger of his two native tongues.
We were acquainted with the mid-sized school and some of the families there, but it was still a bustling and unfamiliar environment that my son entered that day as he passed through the gates into the schoolyard.
The teacher welcomed the group of children who were to be in my son’s class to the classroom and asked them to sit in a circle. Encouraged by their parents and the teacher, children from India, China, Japan, the Americas and various European countries slowly formed a ring.
Of all the children, only our son remained well outside the circle, standing quietly. He was not the sort of child who hovered shyly on the edge of a circle. He was neither disruptive, nor did he seem agitated, but it was obvious that he was not in the circle and had no intention of joining it.
The teacher didn’t insist or make our son uncomfortable, but it was very clear that the circle was a prerequisite for school and schooling. It was clear on that day and on all the subsequent days that followed.
How does being different work within the framework of society?
My son was familiar with sitting in circles and had done so before. There are often good reasons to sit in circles, such as having relatively equal access to and contact with a group of people, however I have also been in situations where sitting in a circle seems extremely awkward and socially counterproductive. Sometimes it is a question of organic timing. In some cases it is nice to share a few things in a circle and then break up into more individual interaction. In other cases it feels better to warm up by meeting people individually and having several people to relate to in order to gauge the environment before having a broader general experience involving the whole group. When the timing feels off, I myself am reluctant to sit in a particular circle of people.
Are you more comfortable with individuals or groups?
I suspect that for my son it was partially a question of this organic timing, and he has never been a person to prioritize a social dictate over what he finds appropriate for himself. Other children might have reacted to their own potential sense of uncertainty by deciding to do what they were told. They might have chosen to follow the crowd so as not to stick out until they
were more familiar with the situation. My son tends to trust himself, and he probably wanted to figure things out before listening to or following people he didn’t know.
The fact that my son did not join the circle did not mean that he had nothing to add to a common learning experience with the other children or that he would not ever be willing to share experiences with them. It meant that the conditions at that moment were highly unfavorable for him to engage in the process in that particular way.
If you are convinced that you are using the proper channel of communication in the proper way, you will be more likely to ignore information from other channels, even if the “proper” channel isn’t working. Young parents often override this through love and a comprehensive connection across many channels with their children. They understand their toddler’s speech, even when outsiders are totally baffled. Any parent who goes back years later and listens to videos of their children will wonder how they managed to understand infant speech so well! Intention plays a huge role.
Context and Trust are Channels of Communication
As our child grows and goes out into the world, we lose some of the context which enables us to decode what is going on and have to rely more on verbal communication. If we feel the verbal communication is not sufficient, we lose confidence in our ability to communicate with our child and forget that we may have other non-verbal options. Communication is in part a question of trust, trust in ourselves and others. In a school setting, the trust is usually placed in an implied social contract, and personal trust can only grow slowly within this framework. If you don’t understand social contracts – if you ask yourself why you should trust a group – you are left with a range of dilemmas.
Trust needs time and shared values
For some people, trusting another individual is very difficult and requires time and a certain quality of contact. It brings with it a set of commensurate communicative difficulties. For a person like this, the task of communicating with a group of individuals could be overwhelming, and the difficulties in communication multiply exponentially. Luckily, things like shared passions, interests, or knowledge can be a short-cut to trust and communication. They are like a letter of reference from someone you already trust.
When trust is called into question
The behavior of someone not joining a circle can fill many people with confusion and frustration. Not joining calls into question the decision of those who do join the circle; it calls into question social trust. It questions the social contract, which can involve people faking social trust short-term with the belief it will prove valid if participants become better acquainted. Not stepping into the circle threatens the assumptions underlying the social contract and can cause anxiety in those who tacitly accept it. If you add to that situation a group of restless children who are waiting for something to happen, this can be overwhelming for a young teacher. When overwhelmed, any person can become unable to communicate with the person who is foreign to their behavior vocabulary. Trust breaks down on all sides and communication becomes very problematic.
Is it a question of bare survival, or can we all hope for a social
My son would not be diagnosed with autism until he was around ten years old. For a glimpse into that process, read my post The Spectrometer.
If you would like your child to feel more comfortable with the social circle, he needs to build up experiences trusting a group of individuals. This can best be done individual by individual, ideally with people who share a common passion or perspective. Access to these individuals also requires time and context. Probably one of the first potential individuals is you yourself, and this requires an honest relationship with your child. I’m sure you have a good foundation, but it never hurts to expand and improve as you both grow.
How can you continue to build an honest, trusting relationship with your child? If you don´t understand something your child does, ask about it, and really listen to the answer. Don´t hope that they will finally give you the “right”, normal answer. Just listen to whatever they are telling you in whatever way they choose to communicate it. Then think about it honestly before you react. Our community would find it helpful to hear about your child´s reasons and motivations. Feel free to share them in a comment below.
Trust needs reciprocity
If you want to relate to your child, find something they like, and try it openly and wholeheartedly. Don´t just watch. Throw the shiny object and watch it spin over and over until you are happy and calm. Organize a large number of things according to specifications you haven´t ever used before. If you haven´t done this before, how would you know what it does for you? I´d love to hear what you tried out and how it felt. Feel free to describe it to me below.
The Interface of Trust
If the face of autism sometimes seems a vacant stare, that doesn’t mean there´s nothing there. It could be a question of interface. In a world obsessed with interface and user experience, how could we neglect to work on our skills to interact with such a large portion of the people all around us? What skills do you find most important for interaction with your child? We would be interested to know below.
Trust and varied channels of communication can build up good interfaces between your child and individuals. A critical mass of individuals can give rise naturally to groups. Groups go about their business, and then, perhaps to our surprise, at some point the circle is complete.