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Trust

Trust_meterBy Sarah Stockwell

Our son has come a long way since his diagnosis at the age of 2. He has soared. He points, he shares, he is hyper-social, which is not something people usually consider to be a trait of a child on the autism spectrum. He loves to play – with anyone. Perhaps this is a result of him being an only child, I’m not sure.

We have spent a lot of time working towards that lovely term of ‘generalization of skills’ or, for the lay person ‘do something for anyone that asks rather than only performing for a select few.  And do it anywhere, not just in therapy’. We’ve had a revolving door of therapists, 12 ABA tutors in one year alone at one time (unintentional). And he does. He transitions from person to person without much of a problem at all. He isn’t fazed if his teacher is out sick or if he has a substitute speech pathologist, and this is a good thing. It seems there is a lot of turnover in these areas.  With him moving up a grade after finishing up his year of kindergarten, it’s good that he won’t be thrown off by a new teacher, teaching methods aside. As a military family, it’s also a good thing since he’s lived in 3 states and is on his 4th school setting!

My husband took our son fishing recently to a local military recreation area and came home reporting that they’d had a great time (and Tom caught his first fish!).  But my husband notices the differences between Tom and other children his age. He notices that Tom has no sense of reserve, enthusiastically making friends everywhere.  He even invites random children he meets at Target to our house for playdates (no, we don’t agree….!).

As a parent of a speech-delayed child who did not notice people, nor respond to his name at all when he was diagnosed, I am thrilled with how outgoing and social he is. I swelled with pride when someone who works at our local home improvement store called him ‘cute and precocious’ a few weeks ago.  We’ve really achieved that goal of having Tom engage with people and enjoy company. He has excellent co-operative play skills. He seeks out joint attention. The problem is that he has absolutely no concept of mistrust.


We’ve spent so much time teaching our son to build relationships that he has no concept there is a reverse side of the coin - that he must also learn to not trust and not to give his friendship too willingly. He must learn to notice gestures that might give him clues as to the intentions of others. I suspect we will be returning to RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) with a vengeance to address this when we are settled after our recent move.

As a native Briton, that Great British reserve is world-known. We don’t talk to people on the Tube (the London ‘subway’). We don’t engage with random strangers. We don’t generally complain that loudly (probably why I tend to fit in better in the US!). So, for me to have a child that would make friends with anyone and everyone is unnerving. Right now it’s not a huge problem since Tom’s only just turned 6, but I worry about the future, especially at school, where he might be teased or bullied and not even realize it. He might have other children who will befriend him and lead him into situations that might be dangerous, just because he is so trusting. He might become entertainment for those who have few scruples.

I’ve heard it said from many ASD parents, that they seek out ‘typical peers’ for their children to play with and we often only consider the good side of this – the example of behavior  and play skills and social propriety. But with ‘typical peers’ comes an unknown – in the same ways our children can trust too easily, so do we. As a child I’m sure I did some unkind things. I’m sure I upset other children with things I said and did. The thought of sending my son into that environment scares me.
Since he’s so high functioning these days, Tom is mainstreamed at school spending 80% or more of his time in a regular education setting with pull-outs for speech and social skills. In a segregated setting I would be less concerned in some ways. Of course, there is always the potential for abuse and bullying in any setting.

It got me to thinking – why do we hold that ‘typical’ behavior in such high esteem? In some ways, it’s a wonderful thing that our children that, for the most part, don’t even see the differences. Tom once ran up to a young adult in a wheelchair and said very excitedly, “I like your wheels!”  As I apologized for him being quite so over-familiar, the parents commented that it was absolutely fine, nice even, since children were normally afraid and wouldn’t approach. My son is friendly and non-judging. He doesn’t say something and not mean it. He asks if we’re ‘pulling his leg’, but he doesn’t really ‘get’ tone or sarcasm. He doesn’t read between the lines, and he goes along with something if a friend suggests it. He trusts too much.

As parents of ASD children, we have a lot on our plates.  Between all the appointments and difficulties and differences, we also have to ready our children for a world they are totally unprepared for and in my heart, I wish didn’t exist.

When we started on our recovery journey, my focus was on having my child be indistinguishable from his (typical) peers. As time has passed, it’s evolved somewhat. Now I want him to be healthy. I want the barriers to his neurological functioning and development to be gone.  A friend of mine shared recently that a friend of hers had lost her young son to suicide. I cannot imagine the heartbreak that mother endured, or will continue to feel and my heart goes out to her. My first thought was ‘was he bullied?’ and even without the answer, I was angry. We routinely hear of too many social network-induced bullying suicides in the news. Even though we have such a large ‘atypical’ population of youngsters who are easy victims, it seems, not even the ‘typical’ children are safe either, with all their social savvinness. What is happening in our society?|

We need to teach our unaffected young people and children to ‘be the hero’. Know that the implications of cruelty and teasing can go far beyond what was intended as a quick thrill. Teach them to be good friends, especially to those who so easily trust them. To teach them that to trust is good, but to be worthy of trust is even better. Children have little sense of the future, but we should encourage them to be the person at their high school reunion that is remembered for being someone who stood up for those who couldn’t rather than someone who joined in on the bullying to be popular. Who knows, maybe the person they stand up for will be the successful, rich one 25 years on….

Sarah Stockwell is a former chemical researcher turned stay-at-home parent. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with her husband Jeff, a Lt Col in the United States Air Force and their son Tom, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Together they work towards recovery whilst enjoying the beautiful Colorado outdoors. Sarah has written for The Autism File magazine and enjoys stained and fused glass art. 

Comments

ldb

My son had a similar developmental delay, and finally I thought he would be normal at about five. Then we realized the honeymoon was over at eight and he is was truly different and was diagnosed with autism. Our struggle now seems epic. How do you learn the English language one word at a time?? It was a different road to follow, the public school system could not rise to the occasion to educate him, but we did. He is now 24 yrs., seemingly normal enough, but different. We found an alternative for the public school and they unwillingly paid for it. We helped him through college ( thank God for computer classes). Bullying is unacceptable and will change your child forever, and even the nice kids will bully not realizing it is bullying. Yes, my son did not perceive the bullying at the time, but would say, "Why do all my friends hate me." He knows now. He is educated and on the road to a job. Who knows, maybe someday, he might live alone. He is happy, but still has no friends. It is a good thing he has older sisters and brother.

Ruth ES

Wonderfully stated! Thank you!

L Ocasio

My child also diagnosed at age 2 is just about two years into his dramatic recovery. He's now verbal, pointing, playing appropriately (even pretend) and excelling in everything except mastering social skills. It scares the heck out of me to know he will be mainsteamed. Its what I've always wished for but how will he compete with typical kids? Just shy of his 4th birthday all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that the next two years will heal him socially as well as the last two have improved him developementally. Thanks for sharing your story!

AustismGrandma

RE: "The thought of sending my son into that environment scares me."

My daughter placed her autistic son into the Special Education pre-school at age 4, but nothing about that situation worked to his advantage. He is chemically sensitive on top of everything else that damaged him from the vaccines, and the teachers all wore perfume, had fabric softener in their clothing, hair spray, etc. so he just kept having chemical reaction meltdowns. That was the main reason we had to home school him, but what we have come to realize is that he is not being exposed to the humiliation and bullying that his autistic friends in public schools are going through.

He gets a ton of socialization through his mother's church since she works in the Children's Ministry, although some of the kids there did call him "Baby" when he was still wearing diapers until age 6, but since his mother was with him, she could intervene. We have heard some horror stories from other parents of autistic children, so I can't imagine having the bullying issue influencing his life. He actually gets way more socialization in the children's programs at their church than he ever would at school, so we are just so grateful for everything that this church provides for him.

I grew up in the military so I know what that is like, continually moving and different schools. Your son is blessed to have you, and to be doing so well in his recovery and at school. But if in the future you find yourself frustrated and concerned regarding the public school system at a future base, go church shopping and look for ones with a children's ministry. Usually only the larger churches can afford to provide that. My daughter's church has a great indoor playground, age appropriate bible stories, crafts and organized games. My daughter allows the kids in her group to have some "wild child" time, where the kids play with the soft angry birds, throw them at each other, running around squealing and laughing. The kids LOVE it although some of the other supervisors don't allow this in their groups because they say it "stresses them out"...but as my daughter tells them, after dealing with autism all this time, how can this be "stressful" in comparison???!!! The parents are glad to have their kids "running off steam" there, and then when they take them home they sleep like a rock....and this kind of opportunity just isn't available in the school system, so even if the public schools do work out for your child's education, there are special advantages to Children's Ministry programs if you can just find the right church for this.

Bridget W

Thank you for writing this. My almost 7 year old is the same way and I have the same concerns. He will go up and invite people he just met at a playground or random kids at Target to his birthday and talk to any and everyone as if they are his best friend. He had an incident in the beginning of first grade where another classmate took advantage of this and told my son to do something inappropriate. My son did it, never thinking someone, a classmate (to him all classmates are friends) would steer him wrong. It scares me that he can so easily be taken advantage of. We are working hard, as well, to try and teach him what behaviors are appropriate with different groups of people, signs that it may not be a good idea to trust someone, and strange danger. I really appreciate you sharing your story and knowing others are on a similar journey.

In common

It's not often enough that parents of children on the spectrum have something in common with parents of children not on the spectrum.

From what I've seen as a parent, up until around 3rd grade, non-asd children take things very literally, too, and trust everyone, unless they've had such a rough family or neighborhood life that any reason for trust or respect has been ripped out from underneath them already.

Around that time kids seem to start extrapolating more, move toward honing skills for improvising, understand humor more, and start to understand sarcasm, and on the flip side, because of that shift they will start being able to trust less.

Around this age, in classrooms, I began to see the types of teasing and bullying that you worry about. Until then, the main concern I see is whether they happen to be around much older kids on the school playground. Schools often have more than one grade out at recess at the same time and young elementary age kids may not recognize bullying or even think to report it, similar to how an asd child might react at any age. My kids school had a public recognition program for "good citizens" who went out of their way to befriend and defend and be positive rolemodels. Even so, I was surprised at the lack of detail even a non-asd child will provide on a daily basis at home re: goings on in the classroom, even in 3rd grade and after. Hopefully it isn't because children have come to just expect bad bully behavior and think its normal or acceptable, which would be tragic.

I don't know what the answer is, whether to start training them early and hope it's embedded in their brains by the time other kids are old enough to bully, or just wait, as even non-asd kids don't seem ready to correctly perceive the situation in early elementary school either in a way that they would readily verbalize it to their parents. I guess it depends on the level of their communication skills.

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