Trying to figure out how much my son understands and what he is capable of, is a challenge in itself. I see people – both strangers and those who know him well – regularly and significantly over and under-estimate his abilities. So I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe and attempt to understand his reactions to situations where people get it wrong. Seeing the effect it has on him – and in turn on others’ attitudes towards and understanding of my son – has made me very careful and deliberate in my interactions with him; assessing what he knows and how he knows things, prior to attempting to build on that knowledge.
When people overestimate my son, he tends to withdraw. He’ll avoid eye contact or seemingly lose interest. He’ll try to move onto another activity without spoken explanation or warning. He might use brief words or phrases that make it appear he has taken the information on board (“yeah” with his eyes averted is a classic response), but he won’t follow-up with his usual thoughtful facial expressions or by adding to or re-phrasing what he’s just learnt.
This creates the impression in others, that he is not interested or not very smart. Those adults who don’t realise the “yeah” doesn’t hold real meaning, or think they are getting through to him, may continue to push ahead, which risks causing an anxiety response in him, born of frustration and confusion. Which in turn can lead to the impression that he is naughty, not paying attention, or has inexplicably gone off the deep-end.
Underestimating my son creates an annoying monster. When people talk down to my son or put blindingly obvious or boring questions to him, he thinks they’re being silly on purpose. He puts on a silly voice (which is irritating) and purposefully provides incorrect answers. He’ll repeat those silly answers he makes up (sometimes not even being real words) ad nauseam; not because he’s having an anxiety response or because he’s dropped into echolalia, but because he really does think this is some silly game. People treat him like a fool, he acts a fool.
This creates the impression in others that he is mentally “limited” (can’t think of a better term), as he talks in this silly voice repeating himself. There is also an extremely good chance that they get annoyed at his put-on voice and repetition (god knows I do). Trying to break him out of this mode and back into serious mode, can be quite trying. So he ends up looking disobedient too (and he actually is at that stage, but only because he thinks everyone is being silly around him). By the time you get through to him that he’s to stop, he often looks confused and can get quite upset; not quite understanding what he’s done wrong. That can also lead to crying and anxiety.
So when I want to ask my son a question to get novel information, or when I want to teach him something new, I first ascertain what he knows without labouring the point, and I do so with a very straight face, so he doesn’t get caught up in silly mode. Once I have a general idea of where to start with him, I break the teaching task or question into chunks, which allows me to evaluate as I go along, what he’s understanding and what is going beyond him. I evaluate the progress and whether he’s taking meaning from the interaction, by testing him gently and in an enjoyable way; asking him questions that allow him to feedback his understanding, or giving him tasks that allow him to evidence what he’s picking up.
I keep these interactions serious but up-beat; I don’t use silly voices or over-the-top reactions, but I do give genuine praise and show real interest in him and the topic. If I see him starting to lose interest – maybe the eye-contact has gone or he’s shifting uncomfortably – I take it as a cue to either go back a step or to give it a break. Pushing through can upset him or put him off the task for the future. I always try to leave on an up-beat note; with success as the end-point rather than frustration and failure.
My son is a remarkably eager learner, and a quite intelligent boy. If I hit his level just right, this amazing, highly interactive and interested child shines through. It’s the boy that his wonderful teachers get to see quite regularly. It’s the boy I wish I could get others to see more too.
I don’t expect joe-public, or even the extended family, to get the over-estimate / underestimate thing, just right. They don’t know him as well as I do, nor do they understand the consequences of getting it wrong. I try to facilitate clarity; to explain his reactions and help speed up or slow down the interaction they’re attempting, to the level that he can fully and meaningfully engage with them.
One of the sad side effects of other people constantly over and under estimating him, is this diverse and inaccurate perspectives and understanding many people get (and hold onto) about my son. That he’s always disobedient, or always playing the fool, or a withdrawn anxious child, reluctant to learn or socialize. My son does react to what people expect of him. Indeed, in some ways he is hyper-aware of social expectations, since he is constantly observing and trying to take on “rules” about how adults and children are meant to behave. (Part of the challenge we face with him is having to explain that not everything he sees is a well-practiced rule, and that when there are social rules as such, that there are almost always exceptions.)
I don’t have any quick and easy solutions to helping people better find the correct “estimation” of my son, besides me trying to facilitate the interactions. I tend to think that as his communication improves, this problem will somewhat lessen; as he finds ways to let people know and to show people just by his communication, where he is at. Perhaps the best advice I could generally give is that they let him lead the way if they are unsure of what he knows and understands; don’t dominate the interaction. And be aware; if he’s lost interest or is being overly silly, don’t just dismiss it as “the autism,” consider instead that maybe it’s the reaction of a child to someone talking to them at the wrong level. Autism makes these things harder, particularly because of the impact on communication and behaviour, but autism does not predetermine everything about my son. He is an amazing little boy, who wants to be part of this world; just give him the chance to shine through.