By Kathleen Dolbee, ASNC Parent Advocate
Parents of kids with ASD often become experts on the subject of autism. Back when my son was first diagnosed, I was starving for information. I read every book I could get my hands on. I was less concerned with academic progress and most interested in addressing his social and communication deficits. He received speech therapy and his goals included appropriate responses to social greetings, engaging in reciprocal conversations, staying on topic, etc. I wrote social stories and drew comic strip conversations, even creating a “Book of Friends” to help him get to know his peers, and over the years he has made progress. However, it recently dawned on me that while my intentions were good, I had omitted a vital component of social/communication goals: shared interests and having fun.
Think about your own friends. Who are they? What do you talk about? Isn’t it true that the people who become our friends are those who have similar interests and are likely people we met while engaging in our favorite activities? Aren’t common interests and experience the mortar that binds people together in a relationship? How much of our conversations are centered on that common denominator or in recollecting a shared meaningful experience? I think that too often our kids are expected to interact with peers who have only one thing in common – the fact that they have social/communication deficits. Does that make sense? How is that fun?
The role of common interests and experiences has become clearer to me since Kyle graduated from high school and is more free to pursue his focused interests, which include trains, racing and the Blue Ridge Parkway. He works two mornings a week and uses the money he earns to purchase tickets for excursions in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida. His annual pass allows him to ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railway very frequently.
Several years ago, I was waiting for Kyle at the station. The train arrived and I watched a steady stream of passengers exit the train and head toward the parking lot. Where was Kyle? An uneasy feeling was quickly turning to panic. Then, in amazement, I watched from a distance as he strolled at a leisurely pace with his fellow passengers. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could see him nodding his head, listening and responding with apparent ease. He was smiling and they were too! He had found “his people” and it had happened quite naturally.
When Kyle was first diagnosed, learning everything I could about autism seemed to be the most important thing. Maybe that was true at the time. But now I think it is time that I learned more about trains and racing and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kyle has autism, but that fact does not define him. The things he is interested in and passionate about are certainly just as important as the fact that he has autism, don’t you think? And since we want to share his life, his father and I are broadening our interests to include his.
Recently, when we were heading home from a quick trip to Florida to visit relatives, Kyle suggested an Amtrak excursion from West Palm Beach to Jacksonville. He wanted to buy a ticket and he invited his father to join him. Since we were headed in that direction anyway, I dropped them at the station and drove alone to Jacksonville, thinking about my son who is enjoying his life, making friends and talking to us more – probably because it has become more fun for all of us.
Kathleen Dolbee is a mother, teacher, and advocate who will be presenting at the Autism Society of North Carolina Annual Conference on March 31. She will present “Creative Ways to Teach Social Thinking and Social Skills for Home and School.”