"Out of rational fear, many of us tell the child (usually non-verbally) I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU NO MATTER WHAT. And it can be just that unnecessary 'taking care' that keeps the child in a learned helplessness, or as I prefer, a LAZY mode of operating."How does a parent begin to hand over some responsibility for the child's attention to the child? (See this blog post from a couple of days ago.) How do you get him from "lazy" (passive) mode to active participant mode?
"Think of your job now as catching yourself when you are about to do for your child when he needs to do for himself... "
--Dr. James D. MacDonald from Communicating Partners
Remember, functions like attention begin in physical, manipulative mode, first.
Think of an infant. Her early experiences with joint attention involve human faces, usually Mom, Dad, grandparents, sibs. Mom waits for the baby's eyes to meet hers, Mom smiles, freezes and waits (processing time), baby reciprocates with a smile. (I blogged about an a-ha moment here.)
After some days, weeks, even months experiencing and practicing reciprocity and turn-taking and interaction with faces and perhaps noises, the child begins to notice objects that the adult attends to. And the adult begins to spotlight objects that the child attends to. The shared attention is focused very much on physical, concrete objects, between-you-and-me, with one object (a block, a rattle, a teddy bear, maybe) between the two of you. The baby gets experience shifting attention between Mom and the object and back to Mom again. The Mom paces the interaction in a slowed-down, exaggerated way so that the baby takes her own action shifting her own attention and gaze. The baby is an active participant, not a prompted passive participant.
Mom offers the toy to the baby, silently, extending it within the baby's reach, waiting for the baby to take her own action to get it.
The early foundations involve lots of experiences for the baby to take her own actions in an interaction with an adult. This is "manipulative mode" for what will become "mental mode" and "abstract mode" as development progresses. First joint attention is on all things concrete and visible. Later joint attention is on ideas, the unseen.
So, what do you do with an older child on the autism spectrum who has lots of words and "talk" but is not responsible for his own attention with yours?
I have blogged about it several times under the label of "learned helplessness". Turn off the words and "talk". Communicate non-verbally and richly. Slow down. Wait for your child to turn his own head, to reach his own arm out, to take his own action. Look for opportunities that allow your child to shift his own gaze and attention. Want examples? Silently hold open his coat and wait for him to notice and insert his own arm, or hold his sock and then his show and wait for him to insert his own foot. Silently, hold out his lunch plate and wait for him to shift his own gaze, turn his own head, and notice and accept it with his own hand. While cleaning up toys (I have Lego or blocks in mind as I type), hold the container as you dump toys in, offer it to him to give him an opportunity to take his own action to scoop up some toys and dump them in.
Around the house, have him join you when you move about. Have him hold one side of the laundry basket on the way to the laundry room. If he gets ahead of you on the way to the laundry room, stop the action. Stop. Silently. Wait for him to notice and return to you. Then begin moving forward again.
These beginner non-verbal co-regulated experiences are the building blocks for the types of practice and experience children need to play and participate in Sunday School, pre-K, kindergarten, play dates, etc. They're the foundation of what we think of as "social skills". They're incredibly important.
Please. Learn from the mistakes we made. Don't miss those critical pre-speech, non-verbal foundations of interaction.