We have been blessed with two daughters on the autistic spectrum who have pretty opposite struggles when it comes to socialization.
For many years before Sno was diagnosed, I was told she was “just shy” or “very serious.” She would often struggle in large groups, noisy crowds would scare her, and she has always taken a while to warm to new people. She’s definitely regarded as an introvert and isn’t really affectionate at all. But when she is – it’s heart-meltingly gorgeous.
Sno has always struggled with forming friendships, and I remember her at the age of 4, two years before she was diagnosed, coming home from kindergarten confused about why one of her peers wanted to hold her hand during a song they were singing. When I asked why she didn’t want to, she simply told me, “Well because I don’t know her. And if I don’t know her well, I don’t want her touching me.” Fair enough, kid, I thought.
Her sister Wilding, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. I was told before she was diagnosed with ASD that she couldn’t be autistic because she was “too social” to have autism. She loves people, and would regularly run up to strangers at the library and ask them to read her stories. She is super affectionate and adores cuddling. She makes friends easily and is loved and cherished by many simply for her embracing, warm character.
Two girls so opposite in personalities and yet they both are autistic. How is this possible? I’ll tell you how.
Being an introvert or an extrovert has nothing to do with being autistic.
It’s kinda like being right- or left-handed. While Sno has struggles with forming friendships mainly because of the how/when/why, Wilding struggles to understand appropriate social conduct and behavior and respect for others’ personal space. In Sno’s eyes, it seems there are so many grey areas of friendships, which she finds overwhelming and confusing with lots of rules to follow she doesn’t quite grasp; but Wilding doesn’t yet understand that you can’t just rock up to a stranger and sit in their lap because you think they look nice.
There are so many tasks in daily life that neurotypical people do without even thinking or putting in much of a concerted effort to achieve. Situations like understanding what to say to someone who may be feeling sad, how to comfort someone who isn’t feeling well, how to make a new friend, or what to say to someone when they pay you a compliment. For some people, these tasks require a lot of effort and forethought, and this can be pretty daunting.
Teaching appropriate social conduct can be tricky and requires patience. With Sno it often helps to do “comic strip conversations” to break down social situations and enable her to see what others may be feeling. I have also found these books to be helpful for Sno because they help simplify stuff and give her tools she can add to her toolbox and use when she feels the need.
We work with Wilding on learning about emotions and facial expressions and thinking about how what we say might make someone else feel. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is also fantastic because the episodes are essentially broken down social stories explaining different things ranging from eating, getting dressed, going out and feeling sad. Oh, and Daniel Tiger also has a terrific app which explores feelings, too.
This book helped Wilding grasp the concept of personal space. And hula hoops provide a great clear visual of what personal space looks like. We use them a lot when we eat outside.
Being “shy” or “outgoing” are not the defining factors of autism. People on the spectrum can be both. If only people were aware of just how wrong these myths surrounding being autistic were.
We see you, girls. Or I do, anyway. And I think you’re pretty incredible.