At age 10 months, playing on the floor, my son took a deck of cards and matched up all the cards – a jack with another jack, 4’s with 4’s, etc. “We’ve got a genius on our hands!” we thought. At age 4 however, my son still wasn’t really speaking. He seemed to be locked in his own world. High-functioning autism was the diagnosis, but in 2002 there still wasn’t a lot known about what to do about it.
Conner loved Thomas the Tank engine, eagerly watching all of the videos, and playing with all of the themed toys, and such. Because it was his passion, I invested heavily in it, purchasing all of the character trains and track pieces I came across, including a train play table on which to play.
I took Percy in my hand and using “chug-a-chug” noises, I routed him on a path...
One day, I entered Conner’s room to find him going around and around the train play table at a measured pace, never stopping. This behavior in "autism speak" is called stimming. It's a way for those on the autism spectrum to self-soothe. Conner had carefully set up the table with an intricate layout of tracks, a variety of bridges, the very important round house, and of course a few other train engines. Thomas the Tank was in Conner’s hand and Percy (the small steam engine) lay opposite of where Conner was moving Thomas. I had tried in the past to play trains with Conner, but he always shooed me away or would simply quit playing and walk away if I tried to engage him in any sort of play. This particular day, I tried something different. I took Percy in my hand and using “chug-a-chug” noises, I routed him on a path along the tracks so that he came to rest right in front of Conner’s Thomas engine, squaring off to him, head on. And then I just let it sit there. A few moments passed when, to my astonishment, my son lifted his head to meet my gaze and firmly said “Move Percy.” Not only did he make eye contact (which he very rarely did), but it was the longest sentence he had ever uttered. And certainly the most straight forward!
Thinking I was on to something here, I refused to move. Instead, I wanted to see if I could coax some more words and imaginative play out of Conner. So I replied, “Thomas, I’ll move if you say ‘Percy, please move.’” Amazingly, that’s just what Conner repeated.
That day, a whole new gateway of finding my son was opened. What followed was several months of Thomas play that allowed me to sneak into his world to help coax him out. Not too long after that initial day of refusing to make Percy move, Conner began to make HUGE strides…so much so that he was able to join a mainstreamed kindergarten class the next year. He is now 19, graduated with honors from high school, and is attending a university full time.
I’ll never know why that day in particular was different than days in the past. Maybe it was just finally time for him to come out of his own world. But what I do know is that I’m glad I took a risk and tried a different approach. It is a lesson I’ve applied to many aspects of my career and personal life ever since.
Perhaps you've been facing a problem for some time that you just haven't yet solved, or perhaps there is someone that you need to try a different communication approach with, so that the relationship is a more productive one. What simple ways might you try to approach that problem differently? Consider getting an outside, objective opinion from someone you trust, preferably someone who doesn't have a stake in your situation, or better yet, doesn't even know any of the players involved. They may see a simple, new approach to try to get you moving on a new, more productive track.