It has been my experience in life that people aren’t always great at waiting for other people to speak.
In fact, they may even talk over someone, without even pausing to listen to what another may say. And that’s fine if you’re neuro-typical and with a friend, and can say with good humour “Hey! I’m talking!”
But what does this mean for the child with special needs?
On more than one occasion, I have heard my child greeted like this –
One long string of words. A continuous blur of sound – that’s how the autistic child hears it. Nonsense, which requires neither acknowledgment nor response.
By people who work with autistic people!
And my response to it is this:
I didn’t spend hundreds of hours helping my son to speak, for you to ignore the possibility of him speaking.
We know that children with autism have processing issues. And if we know this, surely we should modify our behaviour to take it into account? It seems fundamental, doesn’t it? But you’d be amazed how rarely it is done.
Let’s break it down :
The autistic mind needs time to –
1. Hear what you say
2. Process what you say
3. Search for the correct response
4. Find the correct response
5. And breathe in, prior to speaking
Let’s say we generously give him a clear second for each of those things, what does that look like?
I say “Good morning, Ian” and silently count off the seconds on my fingers.
Ian takes a breath and answers “Good morning, Mummy.”
Of course, thanks to our many hours together in the therapy room, Ian is used to being asked questions, and knows there is an expectation of a response from us, so there is no pause. We don’t need to count off the seconds, mentally or otherwise, because – if he knows the answer – he answers straight away.
Five seconds out of your day.
BUT that’s five seconds for each time, not just for a response to ‘Good morning’. Every time you look for an answer. ‘Would you like some juice?’ ‘Have you finished?’ ‘Look at the picture – What is the boy doing?’
Whatever the question, the waiting is the same.
Over the span of a day, it may add up to a few extra minutes. But that’s a few minutes of useful work. A few minutes of time well spent.
A few minutes in which you have shown respect for an autistic person’s need to process.
Shown an understanding for the very nature of autism.
I say five seconds by way of example. It might be less than that. It might be a lot more. Twenty seconds. Thirty. I don’t count. ‘Five seconds’ is just to give you a handle on it, a way in. The time will be different for every person.
Of course, the way you wait is hugely important.
It’s about finding that place in which nothing else matters but that moment. A space in which ‘time’ does not exist. Where there is no agenda, no what comes next?
Where there is no ego. No impatience.
There is only waiting.
If you can find that place, that is where the magic happens. That is where you connect with the working mind. *
There’s an obvious question here, of course:
What if I wait, and nothing happens?
Well, you have several options –
~ you can repeat yourself and wait again, and see
~ you can repeat yourself, and model the answer (“Good morning, Ian … Good morning, Mummy”) and pray for some echolalia.
~ or you can smile and move on, sure in the knowledge that the autistic person has noticed. Because they notice everything. And if they notice that you waited and gave them time, they may wonder what you wanted. Better yet, the next time you wait, they may fill the void with something of their own.
And how exciting would that be?
* See previous blog Autism : The Jam Donut Theory