Joey and I were able to reconnect a couple of weeks ago right before Christmas. My family (my husband and daughters) decided that in order to really connect with Joey we needed to get him away. There are too many distractions around the family house and his group home, and there are usually many other things to do, which stop us from really spending quality time. So, we rented a cabin a few hours north near the Canadian border. It had a big fireplace and 3 large futon couches that converted to beds. It also had a large table, a small boombox and a kitchen and bathroom. Outside it was just us, a forest, and a lake. It was the perfect getaway.
Now to be totally fair it was not very non-distracting. It was a large simple cabin, but we had 5 people in it, including 2 toddlers. The girls quickly decorated the place by taking out every piece of plastic kitchenware and setting it up on the many coffee tables (each futon had its own table). They then "made food" for everyone and tried to feed Joey. Joey isn't really into pretend food. So when he didn't respond to my daughter's demands that he eat, it was the perfect opportunity to teach my 3 year old about bonding with Uncle Joey by playing his games first. We had fun doing the "Joey shuffle" and noticing how comforting it was to stand with our backs against the wall. We even practiced what it would be like to not talk, and how would we get people to know what we wanted?
Joey loved the attention, but he really needed it to be on his own terms. When we turned on the music and started to dance (one of Joey's favorite activities), he would dance with me, but not his nieces. I taught my daughters that Uncle Joey needed time to get used to new ideas and that we could help him, by telling him what we were hoping would happen and giving him lots of time to respond. I picked up my youngest (pictured above) and asked Joey if he would like to dance with her. Joey quickly dropped my hands and backed himself up against the wall. I told him that was totally okay by me, but we would be right here if he wanted to try. We didn't move for a few moments, Joey came back to us of his own free will and started playing with my daughter's shoulder as he moved back and forth. Joey was dancing with her! I was so surprised as he continued to join in all of our activities all night long, as long as we gave him lots and lots of time to respond on his own.
I was also amazed at how often Joey initiated activities and getting his needs met, by coming up to me and taking my hand. Joey is a slow mover and when I'm not working with Joey, I often had other things on my mind and didn't always take the time to see what he wanted. On this night, I really was paying attention to Joey. When he would come to me, he would grab my hand or shoulder, but he wouldn't move right away. I would ask him what he wanted, and wait. Sometimes he would move right away, other times it took him minutes to respond, but I just waited. Every single time he would eventually lead me to something: food, the bathroom, the music, the couches. In the past Joey usually seemed okay to go with the flow, but this was the first time I had ever seen Joey really initiating interaction with me when we were not in a playroom. It was amazing, and I wondered how often he is trying to communicate, but no one is listening.
As an autism play therapist, I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of children and adults with special needs. I have seen the power of "the pause" before, but I don't think I ever really understood it until this past Christmas. Every person has their own processing time, and some take much much longer than others. If we can really be present with our children and happily wait until their brains and bodies are caught up, I wonder how many amazing things they can show us they are already capable of!
I hope you all had a wonderful holiday and that 2013 will be an even more amazing year than the past one!