Raising two teenage boys and interacting with hundreds of school-age kids has led me to an intriguing question: Is it possible that some children develop autistic characteristics even though they have normal neurodevelopment? How does this happen? What are the symptoms and what can we do about it?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with two distinguishing characteristics—a person with autism has deficient social skills and exhibits restricted behavior (hyper-focus). For example, individuals with autism rarely make eye contact when interacting with others and often do not respond to auditory stimuli like the calling of their name when focused during an activity. Autistic children are limited in their interests and activities, focusing on a single topic, program, toy or game. They get “lost” in what they’re doing. Have you seen these characteristics in children you know who are neurodevelopmentally normal? Probably.
Let’s be honest—getting lost in a project, a movie, or a game and occasionally not responding to a familiar auditory cue like the calling of our name is something we’ve all experienced. We can thank our reticular activating system for helping us pay attention to what we think is important and for blocking out the thousands of sensory stimuli that surround us every moment. We have also not made eye contact with individuals in certain social settings. All normal, right?
What I’m experiencing, especially with pre-teens and teens, is a new normal. This new normal is much more akin to the hallmark characteristics of autism—social deficits and restricted behaviors. These manifestations have gone beyond the occasional to the habitual. My conjecture: The myriad invited stimuli and the constant competition among those stimuli to capture kids’ attention have caused children to adopt behaviors that mimic those of autistic individuals. I believe it’s self-induced because the stimuli are invited from the outside rather than stemming from an internal “neuro-anomaly.”
Why is this happening? Why are these social deficits and hyper-focus traits showing up in non-autistic kids like my boys?
Avoidance. Relating and communicating are hard. They require vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of safety in the company of authentic role models. As long as I can stay focused on something else—lose myself in it—I can avoid the vulnerability of relating, and if I work hard enough I can develop the ability to tune people out even to the point of not hearing someone’s voice.
I could delve into the polyvagal nerve and its role in strengthening our ability to read social cues and capture sensory information so we feel empathy,or even explore the role of mirror neurons. We’ll save those for another time.
What can we do about our kids’ deficient social skills and hyper-focused tendencies? Here are two simple actions to get us started:
- Stop avoidance behaviors. What activities do we use as cocoons? Do we tune out particular kids? Let’s build awareness of our avoidance behaviors—and avoid them.
- Start connecting. Carve out time to sit side by side or face to face, or go on a walk with your child or student. Ask about their interests—what’s capturing their attention? Inquire about their thoughts and feelings on issues at school, relationships with friends, what they’ve seen on YouTube,or the posts and tweets they’re reading.
Our kids need to reconnect to those in their lives. Let’s help them develop positive social skills so they get to know their teachers, their parents, and their peers. Someone did that for us—let’s pass it on.