Unlike most kids at a school, Cash’an does not eat with his peers. He eats with his teacher. First, it was because he did know how to sit comfortably with other children, or without grabbing at their food; He didn't grab at it because he wanted it; he didn't want their food close to him. He was, and still is in some ways, a very selective eater.
Even more than that, social skills for many kids on the autism spectrum are lacking. They sometimes don’t assimilate well in public environments because of a lot of factors – too many people, too much noise, bright lights and the like. With a home therapist’s help, Cash’an had to learn to sit the table and eventually clean up after himself. Now, he doesn’t eat with his classmates because of his food allergies – also common for a lot of kids.
For our lunch, I wanted to bring him a treat (kind of like how a date brings flowers). I chose a bag of popcorn. As I walked into his classroom, where he eats, his eyes met mine only for an instant and then gravitated to the bag. In the past when I visited Cash’an at school, he would immediately say “Ma-ma, bye-bye.” I was apparently invading his space or routine, or somehow out of place, much like any kid who sees his teacher at a grocery store – they aren’t supposed to be there. Today, he seemed happy to see me (maybe because he saw me holding the popcorn, but I’m going to say it was me).
I enjoyed our time, simply because he sat with me, with his teachers at the table, too, but as part of his lunch routine, he stayed put. At home, I don’t always get focused time. He is either sitting with his back to me or getting up to quickly turn his short attention span to something else. Socialization even with those most familiar with an autistic child is not to be taken for granted. I was reminded of this challenge as I brushed my hand across Cash’an’s head while we sat for lunch, and he jerked slightly, not welcoming touch for too long because of sensory-socialization issues. I’ve actually taught him how to hug and give me a kiss. I did not to push it. I took in everything for what it was worth and was just glad to give him the extra company at lunchtime.
I think about how other kids have always been attracted to Cash’an and how much he misses opportunities to socialize by not having the cognitive, social or communication skills that autism has stolen.
When he was only 3 years old, months after his diagnosis and while attending a typical pre-school with a special education program, a little girl in his class wanted to be his friend. Her mother got my number from the teacher and called me to say Cash’an was her daughter’s "best friend." I found that sweet and funny since I was certain Cash’an had never said a word to her.
I think about countless days I’ve taken Cash’an to playgroups and parks where other kids would start talking to him. One little boy at a park playscape, I recall, said “Kid! Kid! Want to play?” Cash’an, then 5, did not make eye contact or respond because he still did not have language. The boy, apparently the same age, then asked me, “What’s wrong with him?" I responded, "I don’t think he wants to play today, but thank you for coming over." Off the other child went. I have lots of these stories, but I haven’t given up.
Socialization is key in helping a child live independently in the world – every mother with a special need child’s dream. The start is getting him or her into social settings that don’t overwhelm them – not a movie theater or busy mall, but maybe a park, restaurant or a simple lunch with a friend, sibling or parent. It won’t always work. Take one bite at a time.