Over the summer, we decided to go out for ice cream after dinner one night. There is a little local shack (No seriously, it’s an extra-large size garden shed!) that sells soft-serve ice cream and snow balls, with a large grassy area and picnic tables behind it. The ice cream is cheap, there is lots of room for kids to run around and play, and it’s close to us. All things we love!
So anyway, we were all sitting at one of the picnic tables, eating our delicious frozen treats, when a little girl about Jasmine’s age came running by. Her father was calling her, they were getting ready to leave. Jasmine looked up, saw her coming, made eye contact, waved at the little girl and said “hi” to her. The little girl paused to say “hi” back, and looked like she wanted to talk, but her father called for her again, and so she moved on.
Russ and I, eyes wide, looked at each other and we both had goosebumps. I was nearly in tears I was so overcome with joy.
You see, one of Jasmine’s issues is not knowing how to engage with her peers. For that matter, it’s unclear if she even noticed them most of the time, prior to this situation. Engagement can be harder for children with autism than for typically developing children for a variety of reasons. Even if they want to engage – which is not always the case and can be a whole other issue altogether – there are tons of steps in the process that they simply do not understand. There is often, but not always, a speech and language delay on the part of the autistic child, eye contact is difficult at best, and as I’ve stated before, reading facial expressions is just not a skill that they have, and some can’t even learn it. So social interactions are awkward and uncomfortable for all parties concerned. That said, they can be taught how to engage, how to interact, and they can practice these social situations.
A few weeks after The Ice Cream Event, we went for a nature hike at one of our many local state parks. The plan was to have a picnic lunch, and then walk it off on the trail. As we were sitting on our blanket, munching on cheese, crackers, and fruit, another family gathered near us, with children close in age to Jasmine and Laurel. As soon as Jasmine saw the other little girl – we’ll call her Addy – she jumped up and ran over to her. I caught my breath, unsure of what, if anything, I should do. The other family was trying to get ready for their own hike, and I didn’t want Jasmine to get underfoot, or cause Addy to get distracted when she was supposed to be following her parents’ directions. However, I was excited to see, once again, that Jasmine was interested in interacting with another child. I bit my bottom lip and waited to see how the encounter would play out.
Addy: Hi! I’m Addy.
Addy: What’s your name?
Jasmine: I Jasmine!
[Both girls look at each other, and look around, awkwardly.]
Jasmine: [picks up a frisbee and hands it to Addy] Here you go.
Addy: Oh! Let’s play!
And with that, both girls, smiling and giggly, ran off to throw the frisbee back and forth to each other. (Note* Mommy and Daddy need to teach Jasmine how to throw a frisbee.)
The entire encounter was fairly brief, but I didn’t care. If we had won the lottery that day – well, I have to admit, winning a million dollars *may* trump Jasmine’s amazing social breakthrough, but not by much.
Since then, Jasmine has attempted to engage other children in social games and interaction, to varying degrees of success, but with almost no failures. She continues to struggle, she continues to have moments of awkward silence, but she always manages to get through it, and each encounter improves the next. To be fair, it helps that most preschool aged children are far more accepting than their older, school-aged counterparts, and that they are willing to pick up Jasmine’s slack. At this age, they are just happy to have someone to play with, and they don’t care that Jasmine doesn’t have a lot to say. Still though, it takes a lot of work and courage for my little girl to engage with her peers, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
I wish I knew why Jasmine’s social puzzle piece suddenly fell into place, but whatever the reason or cause, I am so happy to see my little girl engaged.