Approach with Care

I expressed yesterday that siblings of children with special needs seem to show a natural ability when faced with Joshua, in that they instinctively know how to act around him. The majority of people however show an awkwardness; most would like to be better, and more comfortable, around him. So this is my guide as to ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ around Joshua :

  • Do not ignore him as that will only make him more determined to give you a Thumbs Up or a grin. There is nothing worse than feeling invisible, so Joshua should be made to feel that he exists and that he is worthy of a place in any company. I am always amazed how resilient he is however, if his thumbs ups are ignored when out in public, he does not seem to become disheartened, but simply looks around for a new target
  • Do talk directly to Joshua and not via me; Just because he is unlikely to answer a direct question, does not mean that he does not deserve the right of reply. Joshua sometimes offers up a reply, so give him that opportunity to respond, if he does not, I will chip in on his behalf. The classic question ‘Does he take sugar?’ still applies. People will kindly ask me ‘Does he want some juice?’ for example, and I will often reply by saying that I do not know, why not ask him if he would like some juice. he trouble is that he may shake his head, smile or say ‘don’t mess’ as his response, which is difficult to interpret. But you have put the word ‘juice’ in his mind so even if he has shaken his head to say no, a few minutes later, he may well aske for ‘Juice’ by name.
  • Do not talk too quickly : Joshua needs time to process what you are saying, so he needs you to speak to him slowly and clearly if he is going to understand and have a chance of responding. Often awkwardness or embarrassment makes us gabble too quickly and if he cannot follow what you are saying, he will simply switch off and ignore you.
  • Do use your normal voice, so many people develop a ‘baby voice’ when they are speaking to him, which he does not need. So long as you speak slowly and clearly, he does not require a special baby voice
  • Do not avoid Joshua’s gaze; some people are so busy trying to be polite by not staring, that they struggle to look in his eyes at all. Although Joshua has some autistic traits, he does not have a problem with maintaining eye contact and he enjoys eye contact as part of communication
  • Do use simple, clear language : I said not to use a baby voice, but the opposite crime is to use complex language that he will not understand. We were told that Joshua has the cognitive ability of an 18 month- 2 year old, so think how you would speak to a toddler, but without the baby voice, and you will pitch your conversation about right. One Christmas, his Nanna explained that he should not throw her glasses, as was his habit this year and he still tried to grab them off my face now, because they were expensive and were made of titanium! Neither cost nor materials are concepts that Joshua understands and he just needed a simple and firm ‘No!’ at that point, as this is a word that he knows, understands and uses himself.
  • Do not bombard Joshua with too many questions at the same time, but allow him time to process your question and to formulate a response. In our anxiety to get it right, sometimes if no answer is immediately given, there is a temptation to re-phrase the question in alternative ways, and this will just create confusion. So give him space to respond.
  • Do be prepared for Joshua to get too close or to try to win a reaction by his non-conventional behaviour, such as lifting his shirt to show his bare tummy. He is looking for a reaction, as at its most basic, Joshua is trying to communicate in this way, possibly starting a conversation this way. He may try to hug you too, so try to take that as a compliment, rather than backing away, which might be your natural response to a stranger approaching you for a bear hug.
  • Do not forget that Joshua is a young man, a 21 year old chronologically, if not in terms of cognitive ability and so you should behave accordingly. Bear that in mind when you are thinking what you might like to talk to him about.
  • Do smile at Joshua, even if you are anxious in his presence, a smile goes a long way and it will usually be reciprocated, so that then the atmosphere between you will be more relaxed. In general, try not to be afraid of Joshua as that can come across to him. Children in particular can stare and look fearful, as though they are worried that he might be contagious. Can I ask if you are a parent of a staring child, please intervene and start a conversation and use it as a learning experience so that they know how to behave better next time they encounter somebody with special needs? Most parents ignore the fact that their son or daughter is staring directly at Joshua as though he is some freak show exhibit, which I usually find uncomfortable and sometimes upsetting, depending on how sensitive I am feeling at the time. I have to admit to often staring back in my lioness protective way
  • Do not be afraid of silence between you. You do not need to fill any gaps with chatter, but he might appreciate the silence as thinking time, so that he is not too distracted while he formulates his response.
  • Do be prepared for my emotional response if your interaction with Joshua goes well. My emotions run very close to the surface and if Joshua engages with a stranger and it goes well, I am likely to weep with joy. It represents another step closer to Joshua being accepted and being treated normally, and that is bound to make me cry.

Hopefully this is a helpful list of tips as to how to engage with Joshua, which is something that one of my readers asked about. Of course you should be aware that, this list applies to Joshua as he is now, but is not a universal checklist for all special needs young adults. They will all have their own idiosyncrasies and my advice would be simply to take the time to get to know someone, as people with learning difficulties are not universal, but are as unique as every other person you know.

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