"He has autism. I’m really surprised he was playing with you."
This happens sometimes at work, and I’m never sure how to react. A parent (or other adult) will come up to me after I’ve been playing with their child, and point out that the child’s current behavior is really unusual for them.
Sometimes it’s young kids who just seem overwhelmed by their surroundings, and we’ll just sit together for a little bit. I’ll talk about things—their shoes, the weather, the character on their shirt—for little while, and then listen when they start talking. If they start talking—often, they don’t,and that’s okay.
Sometimes it’s a copycat game. They’ll hide from me, and I’ll hide from them. They peek out, and I peek out. They put their hands up, and I put my hands up. When they realize that everything I do is copying them, their actions get more intentional, silly, fun.
Last week there was a young man in our new Thomas the Tank Engine gallery. I talked with him for a minute, and it was immediately clear that he a.) loved trains, and b.) hated eye contact. So I stopped trying to make eye contact, and we played in parallel, not facing each other, but talking about trains, Thomas, the toys he had at home.
And it happened again, the grown-up coming up afterwards and confessing “He’s autistic, he doesn’t usually talk to people.”
And I smiled and said, “Well, it seems like he’s having fun,” because I didn’t know what else to say. And it did seem that way, and that’s great.
But I never know how to react when parents say that to me. They always seem pleased, grateful, even, and I guess they must mean it as a compliment. And if I made their day brighter, and (more importantly) their child’s day brighter, good. That’s wonderful, and it’s what I try to do with everyone who comes to the museum.
But it’s also weird, because—it’s what I do with everyone who comes to the museum. I’m not a therapist, I’m not a specialist, I’m not some mysterious Autism Whisperer. I just try to connect with kids and make their days better. I don’t have special tactics for “dealing with” autistic kids. I don’t even work in an environment where autistic kids are identified as such, except by their parents, after the fact.
So I’m literally treating these children as I would any other human: with cheer, and with kindness, with gentleness, silliness, understanding.
So when the adult says to me, “he never plays this way!” I worry.
Because I am not an extraordinary person. I am not doing anything special—just paying attention to the child, offering lighthearted interaction, responding to their needs and desires as best as I understand them. It’s how I approach every child I work with—hell, it’s how I try to approach every person I know.
So when I hear, “He never plays like this!”
I don’t really know what to say. But I hope with all my heart that its not because he’s never treated like this.