The Power of the Visual
One of the former group members, whom I know very well, works in the library at the nearby university, and since I am a student there I run into "Alex" fairly regularly.
In my delight at seeing him, I greet him warmly but I am not prepared for his reaction. His usually sunny disposition frays into an awkward embarrassed series of stuttering attempts at communication as he anxiously backs away. Being familiar with some of the characteristics of autism, I attempt to respect Alex's space and not take any of this personally. Nevertheless, the unavoidability of these recurring chance meetings in the library increases my discomfort and intensifies Alex's anxiety and awkwardness. For example, one time as we simultaneously notice each other approaching a set of windowed, interior doors, I halt and cut out to the computer area while Alex jerks his cart full of books into a corner where he begins studying a bulletin board. On another occasion in Periodicals as Alex gingerly arranges the daily newspapers on their respective racks and I look for a particular magazine, Alex drops suddenly to his knees and begins inspecting the bottom shelves; meanwhile, I nonsensically divert my course to Reference.
In other ways, too, I modify my behavior, refraining from making eye contact or greeting him; and likewise, he avoids me just as intently. I come to realize that because he cannot adjust to the surprise of seeing me out of context from the social group he becomes anxious and confused in this spontaneous social situation. At this point with both our behaviors having escalated way beyond any kind of social norm I explain the situation to Ron and seek his help.
Ron is able to draw upon his experience as having been a TEACCH therapist for nine years and offers some ideas that prove invaluable. He suggests that I write a note to Alex introducing a way to engage socially in the new circumstances under which we are now seeing one another. "Alex is more likely to understand the new situation if he sees it laid out paper," Ron says, "and this might help him to be more at ease and better able to conform to a behavior appropriate for this new situation." My opportunity comes a few days later after having repeated, unexpected encounters with Alex in the library. I see him sitting in the university café at a table by himself. I quickly scribe the following note: Hi Alex, I am now a student here at the university. I will be coming into the library to study and borrow books. I know that you have a job to do in the university library. When I see you here at the library I will say hello to you. Then I will wave goodbye and get back to my studying. Linda
I hand the note to Alex who shyly takes it and, without reading it, folds it and puts it in his pocket. I say goodbye and leave the café but turn and look back to see Alex carefully reading the note. The next day as I am about to enter the library, Alex happens to be at the door. He opens it for me and with big smiles we say "Hi, Alex." "Hi, Linda." Then we wave goodbye to each other and go on to our work. Needless to say, it was most gratifying to experience such a turn-around with Alex. Such a simple, visual form of communication.