When Matt was very young (and very autistic in his behaviors) he was an expert in the covert observation. Covert because he was subtle, and oh so sly, in the way he watched people’s behavior and interactions. Matt didn’t look directly at faces, as if to do so was just too painful. Instead, he averted his eyes to the ground or to the side. He would then take brief glances at faces or at the body language of another – just a flicker of his eyes - to take in all that he wanted to know. Do all autistic children do that? I know they all seem to look away or avoid faces, but do they all flick their eyes to covertly observe? Have you noticed this in your child?
I remember one sunny, summer afternoon taking him to the park with his older brother, Christopher. Matt was only 3 - 4 years old. The park had all the playground goodies; swings, slides, sandboxes, tunnels, monkey bars, etc. Both boys ran toward the slides as soon as the car doors opened. Usually, I ran with them, but on that particular day I decided I would hang back a bit and just watch. I was an “observer in training” back then, watching and deciphering Matt’s body language, facial expressions and vocal sounds (Matt was not speaking at that point). I felt I needed to become an expert at predicting his next move in order to avert any foreseeable trouble – and I was extremely curious. Why did Matt do the things he did? What did he need?
I sat down on the bank surrounding the play area and started taking notes – I had come prepared with a laptop word processor my mother had given me. There were several children playing, their parents either helping them on the swings, or the monkey bars or watching from a short distance while chatting with other parents. I watched the children too - but I took notes. What I saw was the usual dispersal pattern of playing children – usual, that is, except for Matt. He would always stand away from others, as if trying to keep a safe distance. At first it would seem as though he wanted this – wanted to be alone - but after a few minutes of watching I came to the conclusion that he did not actually want to be alone, he was just unsure of how to proceed. He would stand at a distance with his head slightly downward and then repeatedly flick his eyes in the direction of his brother. He watched Christopher play and run and smile and interact. Matt would then move slightly closer and repeat the covert observations on his brother. His hands would be twisting and turning as he stood there – a sign of high excitement. Matt would then get on the swings or go up the stairs of the slide where he would again flick his eyes toward his brother and the other children. Matt would slide or climb but as he did so he was also watching. It appeared to me that he was trying to covertly observe from as many angles of view as possible – as if he wanted to assure himself the behaviors and interactions he saw would be the same from each new viewpoint.
Is it a coincidence that also during this same time frame that Matt loved looking at himself in mirrors? He could stand in front of a mirror for hours, except he didn’t just stand. He practiced facial expressions for sadness, and smiles and angry eye expressions. He would kick a leg up behind him or raise his arms while looking in the mirror out of the corner of his eyes. Matt would try to see what he looked like walking, running, and playing. Was this because he had observed other children’s body language and wanted to see if his own movements were similar? It was if he was asking himself, “Do I look like them?” It finally dawned on me that Matt was teaching himself things I was not. I finally understood that although Matt could not speak, he could think - inquisitively. He was forming major questions, experimenting with body language, and trying to decipher human emotion and interaction – all of which require some major thought sequences! You could almost see that his brain was in the process of rewiring itself, trying to make up for the lost connections brought on by his autism.
I watched Matt and Matt watched everyone else, but especially other children. He knew he was more similar to them than he was to me or any other adult. That right there, knowing he was a child, sheds light onto his powerful thinking process. I knew from watching him as he maneuvered through these uncharted waters that everything I had ever read about autism (and at that time there wasn’t much) was wrong. My son was not trapped in a world of his own, there was nothing wrong with his IQ, he was not lacking in empathy or emotion. My son was simply trying to open the door to learning communication and social skills – the same door that had slammed shut due to his autism. Matt was standing right outside that door and knocking ever so lightly. It took some covert observations on my part to actually learn to hear his tapping and finally learn how to open the door to his brand of communication. I realized that I was being watched. Every move I made, every expression on my face, every thing - every single thing - I did was under the watchful eye of my son. A person tends to act differently when they know they are being watched and I was no different. I soon found myself slowing down my speech, smiling more, being more patient, and exagerrating all of my facial expressions and hand gestures. I started directing other family members to adjust their behaviors and their speech patterns also. I changed. Other family members changed. We learned to communicate differently - more openly. Once I figured out how to open that door (by learning how to communicate his way) I could help him. I finally was able to open that darn door. It was then up to Matt to find the courage to step across the threshold - and he did.
This one action - stepping through the door - didn't happen over night. It took years of baby steps and continues even now, over 20 years later. Matt can interact with family and friends very well, a bit differently than other people and more cautiously, but he can interact. He can read emotions and body language, though sometimes he can’t quite understand the more complex ones, like loneliness, or the more subtle ones, like someone not feeling well. He still watches, still practices and still takes mental notes on how to proceed in any given situation. This is where hope emerges for a life of independence. It is the need to be more like others that drives him and it is his courage that puts one foot in front of the other as he steps through door after door. Most of us take for granted the simple ability to communicate with others, to socialize, to bring our ability to understand body language clues and society norms into our everyday interactions. With an autistic child we find we need to look at all of it differently. We need to learn new ways to communicate and keep our minds open for new revelations about interactions and body language.
It all starts when we as parents and care givers learn to take notes on the behaviors and body language of our autistic child. Take some time today, right now, and make your own covert observations. In doing so, you too will be hearing the tapping at the door. Once you figure out how to open that door (by learning how to really communicate and interact), then you too will witness something truly amazing - the indomitable courage of your child stepping across the threshold into the realm of the unknown - simply to be with you.