Bonding, Autistic Style
I'm currently volunteering for a summer program for disabled kids for the second year in a row, and I've been working a lot with a boy I described last year as the 'highest functioning nonverbal kid I've met' because he was inaccurately described to me as nonverbal when he's actually got a good degree of useful speech. He's improved a great deal in both speech skills and behavior over the past year, and we've got a more severely-affected mix of kids now, so he stands out less. We've got a couple new kids who are kind of intermediate between him and the other minimally-verbal autistic kid (she entered the program halfway through last year, and was nonverbal and jargoning back then, but like him she's grown a lot in the past year). One of the intermediate kids is an extremely hyperactive kid who appears to have speech delays and has an unusual physical appearance, so I'm pretty sure he has a genetic syndrome. Also, the program has gotten smarter about autism - they're getting people from the autism services group to help out, and doing social stories to explain the plan for each day to the kids.
Anyway, I've been working with this kid this year, when last year I mostly just watched others work with him. He can be an exhausting kid, because by the end of the program he's generally tired and fed up and just wants to go home. He's handling it better now than he did last year, now he mostly just asks repetitive questions ('go back church?') and complains when we tell him to bit a bit longer. (He tends to reply to 'not yet' by saying 'yet!' in an insistent tone.) And asks for neverending back rubs, which I give even though it makes my arms ache. I think partly he just doesn't like being outside. I can't blame him - we're having a very hot summer, and he's a heavyset kid so he probably gets hot more easily.
Anyway, we had a neat interaction a couple days ago. He often sits with his legs crossed and one foot twisted so the sole is pointing up (half-lotus, I believe it's called). I sit like this too. He noticed me sitting like that once and got a happy look and touched my foot. I commented that I was sitting like him. Ever since then, he's had a habit of sitting like that and then grabbing at my legs and giving me a significant look. When I ask him if he wants me to sit like him, he says 'yes'. When I do it, he looks really pleased.
I think this is what cues lower functioning autistic kids that I'm like them - I move like them. I sit in similar positions to them and I do similar stims (I don't suppress my stims like many higher functioning autistics try to, because I feel that it's part of my self-expression). Partly my similarity to them is amplified because I tend to unconsciously mimic their movement patterns (this only happens with autistic kids, I find it very difficult to imitate non-autistic movement patterns). But when they see me sitting a way that they sit and none of the other volunteers sit, or flapping my hands in my peripheral vision, or rocking and humming softly, they're fascinated.
And when we get this kind of connection, these kids - who are said to be aloof, to lack reciprocal interaction, to have trouble with interactive play - show themselves to be quite playful. We'll get into these mostly-silent nonverbal conversations with each other. It's like if you had two Amandas doing In My Language together.
This kind of interaction is what makes me believe that autism is not an impairment in social skills, it's a different style of interaction, which doesn't always translate well to NT styles of interaction. I get these kids, and they get me, in a way that NTs don't get either of us.
This is also why I think that despite the variation in functioning, high and low functioning autistics fundamentally have the same condition. These lower functioning kids often seem to have many of my traits, only to a greater extreme than me. Low functioning autism is essentially 'HFA magnified'. It really is a spectrum. Every autistic person is unique (as are all people), but it's possible for a nonverbal kid in diapers and a verbally gifted eccentric young adult to have something in common that NTs don't get. I honestly believe the differences between HFA and LFA are not as big as they seem. They're propbably a few, relatively superficial traits that have a cascade effect overwhelming the ability to compensate.