social skills
26 February 2003

As we were leaving the afternoon school last Tuesday, I had Damian say goodbye to the curly haired boy. The boy said bye in return but didn’t look up from his scribbling. After a moment, though, he came over. “I liked your silly words! Your words were funny!”

I knew what he meant. Sometimes Damian starts babbling nonsense words. Occasionally it’s got a backwards kind of meaning: he loves making up names for Dante – he’ll call him a “bord knife” or a “teefummer.” But mostly it’s pure nonsense. I try to get him to ascribe meaning, bring it into the concrete world. “What’s a mikluk?” I’ll ask. The answer? “A mikluk is a neef.” Back where we started.

I’m glad other kids find it amusing but still I worry. It’s not appropriate. Not connected. And all too often, he seems to erupt in this stream of make-believe words when he’s uncomfortable, feeling off kilter. It’s his way of regaining control, I think. If I can’t do what you expect, I’ll make up my own rules. And my own language, too.

Sometimes I give in to it and make up nonsense words too. Sometimes we rhyme or build on each other’s variants, playing with sounds, rhythm, the cadence of the spoken word. And sometimes I think my son is simply musical (he is) and that this is a sort of teenybopper scat, an example of how his differences can be lovely and maybe I’m overworrying it, fretting because of a label, a diagnosis, rather than looking at and accepting the whole child.

But there are other things too, things to fuel my unease. Nothing huge. This child is making enormous leaps in his socialization skills, his desire and ability to connect with other children, to have actual honest-to-goodness friendships.


When I talked to Kahuna about fostering a connection with said curly haired boy on Thursday, he said he tried. Said the boy and his friend were looking for someone to play with them. Kahuna suggested Damian. They said no. Why?

“He’s too silly.”

Damian has two modes of play: intent concentrated imaginative play and super-charged gross motor silliness. He doesn’t seem to know how to invite other kids into his complex scenarios. Maybe the problem is that he’s already created his own universe inhabited by small frogs and mice who wash cars and go to the dentist and live in tree houses and order fly soup at miniature restaurants. An adult can enter into this world but another child probably won’t. They’ll want to build their own stories, or stories they can build jointly with him. And I don’t know that he’s flexible enough yet, confident enough yet, to do that with them. And he certainly doesn’t know how to ask, or offer. Not when he’s faced with another child. So instead he goes a little nuts: racing around like a fire engine on speed, revving himself up to the max. Babbling a stream of nonsense words. Some kids like it. They feed off his manic energy and then Damian feeds off them, and they race around like mad and before you know it, they’ve got the seedlings of a friendship. Others? Not so much.

He may be missing a certain kind of play skill, somewhere between froggie scenarios and roadrunner cartoons. A fairly simple joint play, allowing for the incremental leaps from “we’re batting at each other with foam swords” to “We’re knights and I’m protecting the castle from you.” Maybe it’s that the frogs have coopted the imaginary play and now Damian rarely pretends to be something himself. Maybe we need to go back a level, help him get comfortable with that.

Or maybe his problem is more basic. Adults play differently. Damian learned to play with adults. Adults trying to mimic kid play, yes (“I want it! No! You can’t have it! I want it now!”), but inevitably, we play differently. And so, without meaning to, we teach him to play differently too.

The cure seems simple: expose him to more children, let him learn from them. But now it feels more tricky. Because the other children have to want to play with him in order to teach him. And he has to be able to interpret their body language and respond to it, has to modulate his own response so that they’ll want to play with him.

This is where social skills classes should theoretically come in. They’re common for kids on the spectrum. The idea is that these children need to learn social skills. Problem is, many of them teach those skills in a very external way. In X situation, you respond by saying Y. If he’s got Z expression on his face, you know he feels W. Problem is, real live kids never act quite the way they do in these abstracted situations. If X situation is instead Xx with a little V thrown in, what do you do? How can you be ready for the unexpected?

There must be a way to teach in situ, to run alongside him and give gentle pointers, maybe to dissect a situation after the fact. Cheri suggested we sit on the sidelines with him and observe other kids interacting, narrate what they do as they approach, engage, and race off together. Kahuna has tried that. Damian resists. He doesn’t want to think. Doesn’t want to sit passively. He wants to play. Can you blame him? He’s only four years old, after all.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. The curly haired boy and his bestest buddy love playing at being Power Rangers saving the world and Buzz Lightyear zooming off to infinity and beyond. Damian doesn’t get the point. We TiVo’d Buzz Lightyear of Star Command the other day – call it homework – and Dan watched with Damian. Afterwards, he asked Damian what he thought of the show. “Parts of it were scary but I was brave.” In other words, not really his thing. No wonder he’s not going to be a good match for these boys. He doesn’t share their language.

I worry, though. How can I not? I remember too well the gawky boy in fourth grade. There was nothing wrong with him, not exactly. He was bright, friendly. But he was the butt of jokes. Nobody wanted to play with him. He was ostracized. Despised in that careless way kids have. I fear that for my bright, sweet boy. How do you teach a young child to be socially at ease, to be confident enough within himself so that he can be, if not at the center of the pack, then at least not isolated and alone, a despised outsider?

I watch him with Sophia; they do the simplest of imaginative scenarios: the green watering can is a bunny. They’re first looking for, then feeding the bunny. (Then they use it to water the plants.) They crash toy cars at the dinner table. They race around like banshees, laughing wildly.

I watch him with Corey. They don’t do much imaginative play, but they do chase each other on bikes, play air hockey (Corey taught Damian the rules), play an interactive pinball game, sing a song together (all three verses).

I watch him with Estuardo. They share toy fire engines and whack at each other with toy laser guns. They talk about what food they like to eat. They play side by side with the same set of toys, inching toward a shared world.

I watch him with Rosie at the afternoon school. Running across the yard, hand in hand. Bouncing on the teeter totter. Playing chase games. The afternoon school is reserved for the simplest of games but yes, he has company there too.

He’s not ostracized yet. And he’s learning to connect with kids. This is all good. But he refuses to go to the afternoon school without Kahuna (that one good session was followed by a not-so-good one) and if we get there before Kahuna, Damian sits on my lap and refuses to budge. He’s got a friend there, and that’s good. But only one friend in a group of well over a dozen? Not so good. He doesn’t feel at home in that environment and I can’t figure out if the fault lies with the specific circumstances at that school or something deeper and more troubling.

I imagine him in a kindergarten class without an aide next year. I cringe at the image: Damian withdrawn and scared, off in the corner away from the other kids. Trying to reach out, getting rebuffed, bursting out with nonstop babble, trying to cope the only way he knows. And inevitably, crying when it’s time to go to school.


He’s willing to wade into the social pool but unready to dive into the deep end. We’ve decided to hold him back a year, keep him from drowning. But how can we ensure that he’s ready to swim in the deeper waters of typical group interaction in the years to come? How do you teach that skill?

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