Friday, September 23, 2011

Autism: ISM-ing and joining

For those of you who don't know, one of my very favorite things to do in the world is to spend time playing with very amazingly beautiful children who are on the autism spectrum. Over the last 2 and a half years I've had the privilege of spending hundreds and hundreds of hours playing one on one with a number of these delightful little ones--children whose parents have chosen to use the SONRISE program to try to help their little ones learn to connect with themselves and other people.

My very favourite thing about the SONRISE program is it's unique perspective on the exclusive repetitious behaviors in which many children on the autism spectrum engage. In the wider autism community, these behaviours are often referred to as "stims", and inside the SONRISE community, we like to refer to them as "isms". My belief is that everyone, including neurotypical people, have isms--behaviors which we like to do more or less alone, that we do over and over again, because for whatever reason we find them comforting, or relaxing, or centering, or what have you. Like nail biting. Or zoning out on the internet (teehee).

The perspective that the SONRISE program takes on isms is very different from the perspective that many autism professionals as well as many families of those with autism take. We engage in something called joining. It means that when the child with autism is isming, we do the activity with them. We don't just mimic, however. We really get into it with them--whatever they are doing, we really try to understand it, and really do it with them, exactly as they are doing it, with the same real delight and enthusiasm and concentration with which they are doing the activity. It's our way of saying "We love you, and we think you ROCK, and we think whatever you do ROCKS, and in fact we feel that way so strongly that we want to do it with you.". It's also my belief and observation that when I really join a child with autism in their exclusive repetitious behaviour, I can in a sense almost make that behaviour more effective for them--so that whatever they are trying to get from that behaviour, for themselves, they actually somehow get more of it, faster. The end result is that they do the behaviour less. Many SONRISE mums and dads will bear witness to this--that when they started joining their children, their children's amount of isming went down. Of course there are no guarantees, but this makes a lot of sense to me. I'm much more willing and able to engage socially with others when my sensation is that they totally accept me and are totally stokishly happy to do whatever I want to do.

Anyway, today I was playing with a beautiful little boy on the spectrum, and he was doing this awesome ism for about 15 minutes, and I so enjoyed joining him that I wanted to share with you my experience:

N was standing on one side of the little wooden table, holding a shirt. He stayed standing, but he gently shifted position occasionally, as if to find the optimal position for what he wanted to do. So he'd move back from the table a little, and then move toward it a little. He'd move a bit to the right, and then a bit to the left. All the time during this he was deeply engaged in two things. Firstly he was deeply engaged in the tabletop. He was studying it like perhaps a master antique wooden table expert might study it, or perhaps a master lifelong carpenter who only ever built tables. Secondly, he was deeply engaged in the shirt he was holding, studying its texture, its edges, its shape and color and just deeply fascinated by it. It was as if he was looking for the perfect way and place to hold it in order to use it to engage with the table JUST SO. Then he would swing it in these perfect little circular swings against the table. Also during the entire time, he was vocalizing these beautiful vocalisms--kind of a fascinating vowel somewhere between "eee" and "aaaa". These vocalizations would go up and down in pitch and in loudness.

So I joined him in all these wondrous delightful things. I got a pink sari to use as he was using a shirt, and I got on my knees so I was about the same height as him from the table, and I became deeply absorbed by the patterns of the wood grain on the table top, and by the strange sweet music N and I were making, and by the shape and feel and colour and texture of my sari, and by how the shadows on the tabletop changed as I shifted, back and forth, left and right. Obviously I don't totally understand exactly what N is getting for himself from this exclusive activity, but I can say this--it feels deeply centering. I always feel somehow like I'm the lucky one, when N chooses to ISM while I'm the room with him--like he's sharing this profoundly beautiful experience he creates with me.

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