The young man in question works behind the counter at our play centre of choice (I call it Shitholes) and waits the tables (by which I mean carries over plates of foul-smelling chips and cleans up spilt Fruit Shoots). He does, it has to be said, does bear quite a striking resemblance to said Olympian. He may even have drawn comments about it before. I doubt he’s encountered anything like my son’s reaction though. Most children might mention the similarity to someone they were with. They might even say it rather too loudly and be overheard by the subject of their gossip. Not my son. B is not bound by inhibitions, reserve, reticence or self-consciousness. To be those things you need the theory of mind to understand what others might be thinking.
Consequently, he marched right up to the man with the loud declaration, “You look just like Louis Smith! You are Louis Smith!”, followed by pointing and even louder declarations to no-one in particular that, here, indeed, was Louis Smith.
I don’t suffer from a lack of self-consciousness or inhibition, so at this point I chose to look away, pretend I couldn’t see what was going on and continue reading my book. I did that thing that young children and babies do, when they think that, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. “He’s not my son” said my body language.
The man saw through my cunning attempts to distance myself and had obviously clocked me as B’s dad. To my surprise, he appeared at my table, a wide grin spread across his face. “He’s just said I look like Louis Smith the Olympic gymnast and I am SO PLEASED!” he declared. “Yes, that’s my son” I proudly announced (I’m so two-faced). “Cute isn’t he.”
“He’s totally made my day!” he exclaimed, before dashing off to tell his co-workers (it would have been much more impressive if he had cartwheeled).
One hour later, and after having been followed around regularly by my boy, chanting “Louis Smith!”, the delight was starting to wear off. Even my eldest, who had previously found the situation a little embarrassing, had joined in. Louis Smith, to his credit, smiled his way through each encounter, despite the increasing annoyance of the situation. He’s such a consummate professional.
When we left I assumed he was probably glad to see the back of us. More fool him. Three days later we were back again, followed by one final Christmas holiday visit the day after that. However, rather than a look of dread at the sight of us (or a dash to hide in the kitchen), Louis was genuinely pleased to see us, or rather, pleased to see B. “Hello mate!” he would ask. “What you been up to?”
On both occasions, B raced up to him, delighted, and immediately engaged him in conversation. That is, he talked at Louis Smith: “My tooth came out!”, “I played Fruit Ninja!” and “Ferrari is a posh car!” It was all a little one-sided, and increasingly random, but I doubt Louis really noticed, or minded. Louis had obviously taken a shine to B and thought he was a sweet little boy. I see this all the time: B can talk incessant nonsense but he does so with such exuberance that, coupled with his angelic good looks, resistance is futile. I have watched many an adult fall under his spell.
The incident reminded me of the myth that autistic people are antisocial or have no interest in friendships or engagement with others. Perhaps this comes later, as a result of the difficulties of social communication, but as far as my son is concerned, this is a misconception. Or, as one website puts it: “The underlying cause of autistic social problems is not that autistic people are inherently antisocial. It is that they are social in their own way. But this way is not the normal way, and thus they are perceived to be weird by many neurotypical people.”
If there’s one thing missing in B’s developing relationships with others, it is the absence of any real friendships with children his own age. Adults are one thing- they respond in a fairly predictable way and are more willing to engage and show interest (or at least they appear to be). Other children are a different matter entirely, and much more difficult to deal with. The website autism-help.org posted Tony Attwood’s summary of essential skills needed to build and maintain friendships with other children:
• Knowing how to enter into other children’s activities
• Knowing how to welcome other children into one’s own games or activities
• Recognizing when and how to help others, and seeking help from others
• Providing compliments at the right times and knowing how to respond to compliments
• Knowing the right time and way to offer criticism
• Being able to accept and handle criticism from others
• Incorporating the ideas and suggestions of others into an activity
• Give and take in conversation and activities
• Managing disagreement with compromise instead of aggression or emotional outbursts
• Recognizing and understanding the opinions of others
• Understanding facial expressions and body language
• Empathizing with others in both positive and negative situations
• The appropriate behavior and comments to maintain solitude or end the interaction
No wonder my autistic son finds it easier to relate to adults! This level of social engagement is asking a lot of my son at this stage in his development. Still, I am hopeful. At the start of the new year my wife took him to the park to meet a friend who has similar aged children. On the journey there she was able to prime him with sentences, comments and greetings he could say when he saw the children. As a result he was able to greet them with, “Happy New Year! Did you have a nice Christmas?” It didn’t come naturally to him and it was not intuitive, but he is able to learn these basic rules of communication, and that gives me great hope for the future.
Back at the play centre, and towards the end of our third visit, I really wanted to tell Louis Smith that B was autistic. Usually, wanting to do this is because I feel the need somehow to explain his behaviour, even apologise for it. It’s an instinct I have to keep in check. I’ve seen his mom do it too, sometimes when it may not have been necessary.
This time though, my motivation for disclosure was completely different. I wanted to tell Louis Smith that B was autistic so that he could see how beautiful, articulate, sociable, happy and convivial a child with autism can be. I wanted to bring into his world a perception of autism that probably challenged everything he had ever heard about autism. I wanted to raise awareness of autism and attribute it in a person’s mind to the delightful child he had met. I wanted him, the next time he heard the word autism, to be reminded of my child and realise that the condition is not necessarily what he may have thought it was.
I didn’t, of course. For all I know, Louis Smith might know more about autism and special needs than I do. He might even have realised B was autistic, without needing to be told.
As I was driving home, wondering if I should have said something, I realised I had turned a corner to some extent in my own attitude to autism. Here I was celebrating my son’s condition and the child it has made him. I was using autism as a label in a positive way, instead of the usual attitude towards it as a disability. Wow. I’ve come a long way. Now I just have the rest of the world to work on!