“What happened to YOU?” exclaimed V, as Christina croaked a hoarse greeting to her. Peter and I were with our buddies at social group, and Christina, our facilitator, was getting over a sore throat.
“Oh, I’ll be ok,” Christina tried to say, but she could barely get the words out.
“Hmm, I wonder how she got that way,” I mused. “Do you suppose, something may be in her throat? I mean, imagine the possibilities. Can you picture it? Just suppose she was in the park, by a lake, and there was this frog…”
“And she was sleeping with her mouth open, and a frog jumped in!” cried V.
“And she woke up, and went to the doctor…” I continued.
“And he took an Xray!” chimed in S.
I grabbed a marker and scribbled a picture of a girl’s neck with a frog sitting in the throat. “Did it look like this?”
“Yeah, that’s the Xray!” exclaimed S. delightedly. “So he sent her to the surgeon.”
“But the surgeon didn’t believe it. So what could she do?”
Peter typed, “She saw another doctor. He should help her.”
“But what if he doesn’t believe her either?” I queried.
“I saw a cartoon where this cat swallowed a bird, and when the cat opened its mouth, it chirped!” giggled N, our movie buff.
“So Christina, open your mouth!” giggled the kids, and Christina obligingly opened her mouth to reply.
“Ribit!” I said, hiding my lips behind cupped hands. “Ribit!”
The teens collapsed in laughter.
“Christina doesn’t really have a frog in her throat, does she?” asked S, our persistent worried questioner.
“Let’s see, S,” I said. “Hey Christina, say something.”
She tried, but was too hoarse (and was laughing too hard) to make a sound.
“Ribit!” I croaked again, covering my mouth, as the kids continued to roll over in glee. “So the doctor believed her, and gave her…”
“An antibiotic!’ cried S.
“How did the frog feel about that?” I wondered aloud.
“He hated it, and jumped out of her throat!” cried V. “Then the doctor caught it, and put it back into the lake at the park.”
“And how did the frog feel about that?” I asked Peter.
“The frog felt good. But Christina felt even better,” typed Peter.
This “Frog Story” by Teen Buddies is an example of the fun we have in social group. Before I started going with Peter, I would never have imagined how delightful it can be to work with teens with autism. I am always amazed at the kids- their enthusiasm, love for fun, and most of all capacity and desire for interaction. Whenever it was Peter’s turn to add to the story, V. and S. waited eagerly to see what he’d come up with. It would take a while, but they were truly interested, and it warmed my heart to see them gathered round, leaning over his iPad to see what he had to say.
Just the day before, Peter had his first experience at “Young Life,” a Christian youth group that meets in the basement of a local church where neurotypical young adults volunteer to hang out and play group games with teens with special needs. Peter and I were overwhelmed with our welcome. Seemed like his entire special day class from school was there, and each kid came up in turn to greet Peter. They were so excited to see him. Two girls sat him between them, and vied to play with his iPad. A nonverbal little classmate Z spied us from across the room and gave us a shy wiggle of his fingers and a big smile. “This is my third time to come, “ said E. “I used to be really nervous, but now I’m just fine!” she confided with a big, comforting smile. Ten minutes later, we found Z standing right behind us. He had made it, across the wide expanse of the crowded room!
That morning, Peter had had a friend over, Sh. I saw him run out of the car up the driveway, jumping and peeking through the narrow pane of window glass next to the front door. But once I opened the door and let him in, it was a different Sh. The head went down, the eyes averted, and the voice went silent. As Sh’s mother and I chatted, I spied him quietly make his way to the family room. After a couple of minutes I followed, and saw him making funny poses as he watched his reflection in the dark TV flat screen. “That’s the oompa-loompa dance from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’” Sh’s mom whispered. I sidled in and started imitating Sh’s movements. He started to giggle and struck another pose. After imitating that, I suddenly snapped into a stiff salute, a new position. To my delight, Sh copied me. Back and forth, I’d strike a pose, and then he’d strike a pose, and we’d imitated half a dozen of each other’s poses, at an ever increasing pace, till the game was done. “That was fun! Give me five!” Our eyes met, and he gave me a big smile.
I wish I could rewrite the DSM-5 definition of autism. Instead of “deficits in social emotional communication,” I’d like to put, “challenges in word finding, processing and using facial expression and eye gaze, and sensory and anxiety issues that when identified should be accommodated and skills practiced to empower him/her to seek and enjoy the interaction and friendship so deeply desired, though subtly expressed.” Like the teens waiting an eternity for Peter to finish typing, like Z taking ten minutes to cross the crowded room, and like Sh finally wanting to look into my eyes after half a dozen turns of the oompa loompa dance. Because the “deficits” are not a lack of desire. And where there’s a will, there’s a way, or should be, if we can make the effort to blaze a trail.
I hope the hard working parents, friends, families, and professionals who work with kids with autism don’t get discouraged and don’t give up trying to interact. Because I’ve seen enough glimpses to be convinced that in each of our kids there’s a social person, just waiting for someone to help him/her break through.