What Is Joining? (An Easy Tool to Help Kids with Autism.)

First Things, First

I am thrilled to announce that Move Autism (that’s me) is sponsoring the first ever San Francisco Son-Rise Essentials Program®! For those who aren’t familiar with the term, I’ve talked about the program before and you can learn more here. This will be a three day course in San Francisco, April 25-27th with a follow-up “Next Steps” program July 25-27th! Learn more at http://www.sonrisesf.com.

Beginning what I’m sure will be a theme over the next several months, in this post I’ll discuss my experience with a single element of the Son-Rise Program®, called joining. Before I dive into a definition and my own personal experience, I’ll say a few words about the intersection between autism and learning. What I look to accomplish with children with autism is actually quite similar to what I look for with athletes or book authors – next steps. Autism is a complicated issue with diverse social, environmental, movement and other factors affecting each child. But what I do with individuals, regardless of diagnosis, is similar.

Step 1: Assess where and who they are, getting familiar with their habits and patterns.
Step 2: Form a common bond and connection.
Step 3: Invite them towards something new – be that backflips or more typical child-like behavior.

What Is Joining?

Joining is the term used by the Autism Treatment Center of America to describe a way of developing commonality with children (step two), long before inviting them into something new.

My First Experience Joining a Child

After college I was training in a form of movement therapy to overcome a serious injury. A segment of my training was on how to work with kids with special needs. At the end of an intensive couple of weeks we were given the opportunity to practice with special needs kids. We were to be paired with children with a variety of diagnoses and given 30 minutes to practice this exceedingly gentle, hands-on movement therapy.

On the day of the event my teacher’s center was bustling with activity and there was some confusion regarding the child I was scheduled to work with. I was told that he didn’t like rooms full of people – like the one in which the practicum was to be held – and that he’d probably be quite overwhelmed. It was decided that I was to work with him in my teacher’s private room, instead.

When I entered the room I was surprised by the number of people present. His parents were sitting, somewhat anxiously, in chairs. There was another man observing from a corner, whom I later learned was a PhD in special education visiting from Kaiser. And there was Tomas.

Tomas was standing in between his parents chairs and staring very intently at the floor. I had only ever practiced working with kids and adults on a low massage table and here was this boy, standing, and seeming quite disengaged. The only place available for me to work with him was my teach’s standing-height table in the center of a small room crowded full of observers!

I remember feeling so unsure of myself. As a novice practitioner this was supposed to be a group environment, a first comfortable chance for us to practice new skills. And here was I thrown into the deep end. No pressure. None at all.

From the get-go it was pretty clear that Tomas wasn’t super interactive but I did what I had been taught and asked him to come up onto the high table for me. He didn’t respond. I asked his parents if it would be okay and then lifted him up onto the high table. Once he was up there he settled down and began to twiddle his fingers, very intently.

At the time I didn’t know why this little boy would be twiddling his fingers with such intensity. I’ve come to know this sort of behavior as an “ism,” a self-regulating behavior that children do (and all of us do to a lesser extent) to filter out the outside environment and exert a feeling of control. Today I laugh at the extent to which we all have “isms” – television, fantasy novels, gymnastics – that just happen to be more socially acceptable than staring intently at one’s twiddling fingers as Tomas did.

The movement lesson proceeded quietly, though periodically he’d decide he’d had enough of the high table and proceed to explore the room. He particularly enjoyed my teacher’s bins full of toys. He discovered that he could put ping-pong balls into his mouth, pop them out across the room and get quite a reaction from the observers! To me it looked like a lot of fun, though I didn’t know at the time to join his game.

Around 20 minutes into the lesson Tomas crawled underneath the high table and didn’t want to come out. We had had a lot of quiet, intent time together on the table practicing the movement therapy. Normally lessons last less than 30 minutes so I was quite content to call that the end, when I had an idea. As a pre-teen I had loved building forts and I realized that the space under the table had a really cozy fort-like feel. I began to hand Tomas pillows which he enthusiastically placed as barriers between himself and the observers. Eventually, I too crawled underneath the table and build pillow walls around my own little corner of the table.

I vividly remember a moment of ah-ha just before we took the fort down and Tomas’ parents walked him away. This boy was tired and perhaps even scared. He wanted a small space to curl up in to escape the eyes of the watching crowds. And no wonder! Instead of telling him not to do that, what better way of showing him loving support than to do the same activity near him myself.

It was several years later that I learned the term “joining” from the Autism Treatment Center of America and volunteered in my first Son-Rise Program®. And the image sticks with me:  Tomas and I curled up in our adjacent pillow forts; me joining him in his initially very exclusive activity.

Take Aways and a Question

Whether you are personally affected by autism or not, think on the word joining. What does the phrase mean to you? After first practicing joining Tomas in his pillow fort building, I have learned to intentionally apply the principle with children across the autistic spectrum, with professional athletes and other clients I see, and even in daily conversation. The idea of accepting someone exactly where they are, withholding any inclination to change them, has been profound from me. With a child or elsewhere in your life, where might you do the same?

Leave a comment and let me know!