Autism: More about waiting …

In my previous blog (part three of my lecture notes – Autism: What the books don’t tell you), I talked about the importance of waiting for a response. I also suggested a five-second time-frame to wait for that response.

How hard it was for me to put into words something I do instinctively!  I have never counted seconds in my head.  I have never even thought about ‘time to hear, process, search for the correct response, find the correct response, inhale prior to speech’.

I watch.  I feel the moment.

Of course, when I thought about trying to explain this to students, I had to find a way that would make sense, and give a person a simple time-frame they easily could remember and put into practice.  So my ‘five second rule’ came to mind.

Five seconds out of your day.


But that’s five seconds for each time, not just for a response to ‘Good morning’ – the example I gave in my blog.  Every time you look for an answer.  ‘Would you like some juice?’  ‘Have you finished?’ Whatever the question, the waiting is the same.  In total, over the span of a day, it may add up to a few minutes, but that’s a few minutes of useful work.  A few minutes of time well spent.  A few minutes in which you have respected the autistic person’s need for time to process, time in which you show an understanding of the very nature of autism.

Those few minutes where you waited may very well be the best work you ever do.

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Not long ago, my husband and I went to a local centre where they provide daily care for adults with a variety of special needs.  We were shown around to see whether it was a potential day placement for our son, Ian.  As it turned out, it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t suitable for Ian at all, as they run an ‘open door’ policy, and Ian would have taken the gap in half a morning and we’d still be looking for him.

In one section of the building, there is a framing shop run by two autistic men.  We were led in and past one chap who was standing behind a work table, cutting frames.  As our little procession passed, we greeted him and were shown into another workshop, and after we’d seen that, we turned to leave.  The three people who work there said a cheery goodbye to this chap behind his work bench, and carried on, walking past him and out the door.  I didn’t.  I paused.  “Goodbye,” I said, looking at him.  I stood quietly and waited – with no expectation of a response. I didn’t even know if he was verbal.

He glanced at me and a little smile appeared on his face.  After a brief pause, he said “Goodbye”.  I grinned, because I could see he knew what I was doing, and he grinned, because he knew I knew it.  He had answered me, politely and appropriately.  Perfectly.

I left walking on air because of the joy in that connection.

But the people who worked with him every day, who knew him best, walked past him, talked at him, without pausing to give him time to respond.  I found that extraordinary, and – in my heart of hearts  – utterly unacceptable.

A few seconds out of your day …

If we could slow ourselves down, if we could find it in ourselves to pause for those few brief seconds, how different would our dealings with autistic people be?  How much more verbal do you think we might find them, if we actually gave them time to process and respond?

I suspect it might be a very different world indeed.


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