Recently my son Jeremy gave a talk to staff of Kids Included Together (KIT) about what 'inclusion' means to someone like him. Jeremy's sensory challenges as a child and his need of assisstive technology to communicate meant that being 'included' was not always easy. But mostly, it was not easy because after-school 'inclusion' meant trying to have Jeremy do what 'normal' children were doing and to act like them.
It is important to try and teach children on the spectrum appropriate play skills as a way of connecting with other children. However, they aren't always interested in what neurotypical children consider fun. For example, Jeremy never liked typical birthday parties, and when asked preferred to have two of his friends or favorite people over at a time, not a big group celebrating, running around, making noise.
We need to realize and resepct that not everyone finds the same things fun. We need to give our loved ones the time and space to do what they consider fun. Many parents and professionals spend an exorbitant amount of time, money and energy trying to get children on the spectrum involved in what we non-autistic individuals think of as fun. Then they spend just as much time, money and energy trying to get them to be less obsessive (translation: passionate) about whatever their special interest is.
What is important, is that we don’t destroy their ability to be passionate, because their passion will help them find their career path in the future. Of course not every obsessive thing a child does is proof of an inner talent, but we also need to consider and honor the ‘fun-factor’. We need to look at this from their point of view and try to engage in or be supportive of their fun.
Many non-autistic adults (parents and educators) have a hard time realizing that being passionate (neurotypical translation : obsessive) and engaging in topic of interest is that autistic child’s way of having fun.
I mean really, is what we neurotypical consider ‘fun’ really sound like fun? Consider these activities originally listed in Autism Life Skills (Penguin) that are usually considered enjoyable, recreational activities by many non-autistic adults, and tell me they sound attractive:
- Spending hours sitting on a hard seat in the cold/heat/rain, in a noisy, crowded, smelly environment with greasy food watching men (usually) run after each other doing something that involves a ball (going to a live football, basketball, baseball, or soccer match at a big stadium).
- Spending three or four hours chasing a little ball with a big stick around a big green park in all kinds of weather , and paying lots of money for the pleasure of doing so (golf).
- Spending Sunday afternoons and Monday nights with other grown-ups drinking beer and watching men in spandex run around a field with a blown-up piece of pigskin (Sunday / Monday night football on TV).
- Spending hours in crowded environments with loud music and too much lighting to bring home stuff that will just sit in your already crowded closet most of the time and increase the amount of your debt (shopping).
- Spending hours in a smelly brightly- lit environment and paying money to someone to put chemicals on your nails (feet and hands) and then having to wait for the chemicals to dry before you can use your hands again or put your shoes back on and leave (nail salon).
- Spending hours in a crowded, noisy environment and spending money on beverages that make you act silly, lose all inhibitions, and prevent you from driving yourself home (hanging out at a bar and drinking alcohol).
- Spending time and lots of money to be served delicious food and expensive wines that will soon be but a memory, and that our bodies will eliminate within a few hours (frequenting expensive restaurants).
You get the picture. If someone landed here form another planet, they wouldn’t really understand why these activities are fun.