When the Social Deficit Becomes Obvious
We often talk about how “controlling” MJ is during play with adults and with the other kids at daycare, or cousins. She wants to lead play and gets upset when others don’t want to follow her ideas, or try to change her carefully scripted ideas. However, this is the MJ with people she knows. The MJ with people she doesn’t know is very different and it breaks my heart to watch.
She is desperate to have more friends, even asking us to have another child because then they would have to be her friend. Recently I had two opportunities to watch her try to engage with other kids and it made the social deficits of Aspergers that more apparent. It’s well documented that kids with ASD often have issues with social interaction and not being able to know how to initiate or join groups.
A couple of weeks ago we went to visit the local aquarium and while we were there, she saw some kids playing dress up on a little play boat. I watched her go up and stare at the kids, holding her hands, folded one over the other, chewing on chewelry. I gave her a couple of moments to see what she would do, but she just stood there staring. I went over and asked her if she wanted to play with them. She said “yes.” I asked her what could we say if we want to play with some kids who are already playing something. She couldn’t respond. I told her that we could ask if we could have a turn/play too. She whispered it in an inaudible voice. So I modeled it by saying “This looks like fun, could we play too?”
The kids shrugged and said sure. But MJ just stood there. I tried again, but she started shutting down and the last thing I wanted to do was turn the visit to one of her favourite places into a negative experience. So I suggested going to see the seahorses and she happily accepted.
This weekend, we were at the ‘barn’ another one of her favourite places on earth. Friends of ours own a barn and other friends stable horses there (one of which she rides) and she enjoys spending time there brushing and talking to the horses. It’s our go-to-spot when she’s upset, the moment we arrive, you can see the tension ease out of her body.
On the property, there is a second house where three little girls live ranging from about 6-10 years old. MJ has seen these girls before and has on occasion been interested in them, but mostly ignored them. On Sunday, she saw them standing at the gate and asked me “Mommy, can I go say hi?”
I secretly jumped up and down for joy – and said, “yes, yes, by all means, go say hi” and watched her hurry over. I then watched her walk slow as she approached, the hands fold one over the other and her head tilt to one side, the eyes look a the dirt and start sticking her toe in the dirt. I stayed back, but heard a barely audible hello.
The other girls, asked her how old she was and then I heard the conversation die. I watched as she was frozen in her spot, and decided to head over. I introduced myself to the girls and asked a few questions. I then leaned down so I was on the same level as MJ and asked her if she wanted to ask her new friends to play. She vehemently shook her head no and I asked her what she wanted to do. She whispered “leave and go back to the horses.” So I modeled for her what to say when we want to exit a conversation. The girls, being kids, asked me why she wasn’t interested in playing/talking to them. I explained that she was just a little shy.
One of the sensory things that MJ likes to do at the barn is to use a hoof pick to clean the cracks in the cement slabs. She can sit there and do it for an hour without issue, and is becoming obsessed with doing it over and over again. I’ve come to realize I am going to have to curb that obsession and only allow her a set amount of time to do that each visit!
So while she was doing this, the girls climbed over the fence and came in the barnyard to see what she was doing. I suggested to her she could share her hoof pick – this did not go over well. However, I was proud yet again when she stood up and asked my friend as well as the owner of the barn if they had any extra hoof picks. They did, so all three girls sat down with MJ and she showed them how she cleans the cracks. This kept their interest for a few minutes, but soon they got bored (I don’t blame them) and wanted to do something else. I heard them invite MJ, to which I was happy she responded, but sad her answer was no. So they decided to leave, they said their goodbyes and went on their way.
MJ looked at me with big sad eyes and said “Mommy why don’t they like me?” I explained that it wasn’t that they didn’t like her, they just were not interested in cleaning the cracks with a hoof pick. She couldn’t understand this concept, saying “But I could do this all day? Why don’t they find it fun?” I had to explain that sometimes people have different interests and that is ok.
In the car on the way home and even the next day, she asked again why the girls didn’t like her. It broke my heart to see how hard it is for her to understand the complex world of social relationships.
On Sunday, we also had a play date with the Monkey in the morning which went very well – they always do. The Monkey and MJ have a special relationship, they both know they are “different” and don’t care if the other needs to take a break. I remember one time when we were at Sabrina’s house for a party and MJ needed a break. The Monkey stood guard outside his room and wouldn’t let anyone else enter because he instinctively understood what a “break” meant. While it still tires both of them out, it’s much easier for them to play with each other. When we’ve asked our kids why they like to play with one another, both have said exactly the same things, such as “he/she doesn’t yell, or play too loud and he/she knows I don’t really like to be touched.”
Besides the play date the interactions with the girls at the barn, the owner – who we don’t see every time we visit – spent a lot of time talking to MJ. In this picture, you can see what I mean when I say she folds her hands, one over the other.
All of this social interaction exhausted her. My child who rarely ever sleeps without melatonin, asked to go to bed at 6:30 and although my husband popped in the melatonin for good measure/out of habit, it was as she was falling asleep; she didn’t even need it.
This social exhaustion is also well documented, especially in girls and women.
As parents of a child in therapy, we’re often asked “what are your goals or what do you want your child to accomplish from therapy?” This is also a question that has come up in relation to school.
I know now, this is my number one goal for her to work on when she enters school in the fall. Academically, she’s pretty much got all the kindergarten skills, socially she has a long way to go. But this gives me hope. It gives me purpose. We can work with her teacher and the resource staff at the school to build her social skills and make it a focal point of her programming. We have a goal!
Hope you have a great day!