secret handshake

When Brooke was in preschool, we were desperate to learn and adapt the techniques that her ABA team was using to help foster social interaction. They had welcomed us in to observe them in action, but we knew that our physical presence in the room would have a disastrous effect. Our BCBA generously offered to record sessions periodically and to give us the videos to watch at home. The result was an invaluable glimpse into Brooke’s world.

In one of the videos, she can be seen practicing her newest skill set – raising her hand and waiting to be called on. As one hand went up, the other made its way immediately toward her mouth, holding one little finger gently to her lips in a ‘shushing’ sign. The motion was fluid, the result of hours upon hours of practice. There both hands would stay until she was called upon.

This process had taken an inordinate amount of work to master. While it might seem like a simple enough task, many of us know full well just how much so called simple tasks can actually entail. Breaking it down, a few of its components are as follows:

Understanding (by virtue of verbal and social cues) that a question has been asked of the entire class (in this case four kids)

Knowing that you are expected to attempt to answer the question

Raising your hand and waiting quietly to be called on (helped by the neat little trick of the finger on the lips)

Remembering that you must not call out the answer while your hand is raised (an early pit fall that proved difficult to overcome)

Watching for further verbal and social cues that will show you who has been called on

Staying calm and quiet while other children are talking

Accepting the possibility that you may actually not be called on at all

Lowering your hand once you have either answered or the process is complete

That’s an awful lot to master, but, thanks to the diligence of her incredible ABA team, by the time she left pre-school, my girl had it down. In the last video we have, Brooke can be seen raising one little hand, shushing with the other and waiting patiently to be called on. 

I remember commenting to our BCBA how cute I thought it was that the kids made the shushing sign. “What a great strategy it is for them,” I marveled. 

“Oh, yeah,” she chuckled. “You can always tell which ones are ‘our kids’ when you walk into an elementary school classroom. They always have their little fingers to their lips.”

I got to thinking about some of the more subtle signs that identify our kids. Not the big ones, the little ones. The ones that may linger long after the bigger ones begin to fade.

As they become more adept at handling their challenges –  as they take on luncheons in five star hotels or speaking engagements in front of hundreds of people, will they still recognize these telltale signs in one another? Will they see the slight flap of fingers that emerges here or there in a moment of stress? Will they catch the stimming on a smooth surface that no one else would ever know to identify? Will they notice a repeated phrase or single word diction? Will they see someone across a room wince at a loud noise or notice that someone else might (like them) resist meeting their eyes?

Will they one day use these signs as a roadmap to find each other? I wonder. Will they feel a sense of kinship? Or will these subtleties more likely escape them?

Katie went to a party the other day at her friend ‘Emma’s’ house. She and this little girl have a lot in common, including their status as siblings of kids on the spectrum. They get each other. They speak the same language. They live with siblings who sometimes defy their best attempts to engage and understand them.

Emma and Katie had made plans ahead of time. They had activities planned and a list of things they were going to do. Katie, Emma had assured her, would be the ‘special helper’ throughout each of the activities. They would begin with a play salon at which they would style each party-goers hair. Of course, they hadn’t run any of this by Emma’s mom, and when it came time for the actual party, the best laid plans of mice and seven year-olds had to take a backseat to the constraints of time. 

The next morning, Katie told me all about the party. I asked if they had indeed styled hair and if she’d gotten to be the special helper as promised. “No,” she said, with a shrug. “It didn’t work out. I guess there just wasn’t enough time.”

I said that I was sorry to hear that and that she must have been a little disappointed.

“You know, Mama,” she began. “I was a little, but really it was no big deal. And Emma made a point of thanking me for being so flexible. She said she really appreciated the fact that I was as flexible as I was. She told me I was a really good friend for being so understanding.”

These girls are SEVEN YEARS OLD.

This language. This composure. This hyper awareness of other people and their feelings. This sensitivity to the needs of friends. This constant stream of encouragement and praise. Like the finger flapping or the stimming or the perseveration might be for our kids with autism – are these the things that will identify the siblings to one another?

Because damn it all, if these kids find each other, lean on each other, understand each other – our world will never be the same.

Just imagine the possibilities if they join forces.

8 thoughts on “secret handshake

  1. Hey. I wonder if Emma’s mom was ever informed about these plans? 😉
    I’m sure she would have made time, had she known. Katie is pretty darn incredible!! xxx ooo

  2. Your last two posts have me in tears (the good kind). Hope abounds in every word you’ve written, and it’s just what we autie-moms need to hear, every day. I’m running a little contest on my blog today, encouraging people to share autism/HOPE stories. You MUST enter either or both of these posts and provide a link for my readers (though I’m pretty sure they all know you already, there may be one or two out there who haven’t had the pleasure of reading your blog yet).

  3. This post is so moving, Jess. I had written in one of my earlier posts that although parents, teachers, and therapists of ASD kids are worthy of praise, the siblings are the unsung heroes of autism.

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