Last fall, Pamela and I made a new friend who loves turtles. The other day, Pat found an eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) stranded in the road, closed up tight in her shell, too frightened to head out of traffic. She took the turtle home to make sure all was well. We paid our first visit on the day our friend found it (September 7). We only observed the shell for the turtle was not hungry enough to risk peeking out of her refuge. We took pictures, answered some of the questions from the Comstock book (our stock in trade for nature study), and later made an entry in our nature notebooks at home.
Seeing the turtle shut up tight in its shell reminded me of what happens to children with autism. Something in the environment (a sound, a small change, too much information, a fast pace) makes them feeling like a turtle trying to cross the road with cars racing by. If they cannot retreat into a shell (quiet place, repeated words, rocking), they meltdown and tantrum or they completely zone out. If we try to make the world too predictable and safe, as my friend Di described in her recent blogpost, then the whole family ends up boxed up into a very small world.
Many people wonder how to help children in the spectrum find the world less frightening. Our second visit (September 14) to the turtle illustrates how to make this happen. After a week of living in an alien world, she—her brown eyes, flat bottom shell, and high upper shell are clues to her gender—learned to come out of her shell. Because she could see us through the clear, blue bin, Pamela and I created a little bit of anxiety. She slowly crawled into one corner of the bin and turned her tail to us. She tolerated us as long as we sat very still. If we moved too much, the turtle would move away and, at one point, she retreated into her shell.
Di posted a graphic with guidelines for encouraging meaningful interaction. We applied these ideas in our observation of the turtle: stay calm, be aware of sensory issues, stop the action, and speak less. When Pamela feels anxious, I force myself to remain calm and quiet, even if a storm is blowing and the power has been out for awhile. When she seems inexplicably upset, I pay attention to the environment to search for a cause, so we can deal with it. When she blusters because I am not giving into an unrealistic demand of hers, I stop the action. Any action I take causes her to increase her intensity. Doing nothing helps her realize the ineffectiveness of storming. When she is ready to process so we can figure out a realistic option, I match my verbal communication to hers so that she feels like an equal partner. I communicate with my face, hands, and body because she can understand and express herself in like manner (Relationship Development Intervention helped us achieve that miracle). I speak with declarative language (rather than issuing commands) because she needs to think for herself.
Slowly, the turtle emerged. She was hungry for she hadn't eaten the day before (typical, for turtles). Pat dug up four juicy earthworms and plopped dinner into the bin. The first worm wiggled fiercely but the turtle ignored it. We sat quietly and waited and waited and waited and waited. Ants crawled across the pavement. And we waited. Hummingbirds buzzed overhead. And we waited. Pat dropped a juicy worm right in front of the turtle, who sat on the wiggly thing. Mosquitos sucked our blood. And we waited. During this downtime, we reminded Pamela to sit still and avoid swatting the bugs. We reminded ourselves to sit still. The turtle took forever to find her courage.
Finally, we noticed her eyes tracking a worm. She slowly shifted her body in the right direction. A spider walked near Pamela's hand. And we waited. The turtle's head stretched out slowly. Then, very suddenly, very snakelike, she struck! She snapped open her jaws, picked up the worm, and gummed it to death for turtles lack teeth. She was a messy eater, leaving pieces behind. One bit of worm hung out of her mouth like a cigar. She was full after two worms.
People with autism process at slower speeds. While many can react to prompts quickly, you have to give them plenty of time to observe, process, decide, and respond. My friend Di had to wait 45 seconds for her son to respond when she first changed her communication style to foster interactions. His processing speed has increased dramatically now that they have been working on this for awhile! Pamela needs about 10 seconds to think through simple tasks. If language is involved, it takes much longer. When you give our kids the time they need to process and think, they develop the habit of processing and thinking and learn to do it more efficiently.
Pat decided to release her turtle into the woods near her home. Pamela watches and wishes her well.