Helping autistic children experience the joy of connection

Image title: Helping autistic children experience connection

Recently Lucy has started to experience-share more with us at Bright Futures School. She has come a long, long way from the disengaged girl who started with us back in 2015. Just to remind us, here is a clip of how she presented then:

In the above clip, Lucy is not really even acknowledging me as the other person who is in the room with her. Her focus is on the objects she is carrying. At this point, the ‘why bother’ of interacting with other people hasn’t clicked for her. Due to the absence of the guided participation relationship as the framework for her social interactions, she hasn’t experienced other people as fun or helpful or as sources of useful information or as a means of engaging in experiences that give her feelings of competence.

It’s hardly surprising that someone who doesn’t understand interactions, doesn’t know how to relate or communicate reciprocally, or has experienced multiple negative consequences in trying to connect, will withdraw from or avoid connection. This is not to say they don’t want to connect….as humans we are all hard-wired to do so.

As typically developing humans, we have, in baby and toddler-hood, taken part in thousands of hours of back and forth interaction within the naturally occurring guided participation relationship that trusted adults put around us without even thinking about it. This has developed our ability to manage uncertainty and unpredictability. It has also enabled us to have experiences of competence and success in tackling challenges that are just beyond the edge of our current competence……with the adult instinctively scaffolding for the child’s success. This builds resilience and enables us to have another go at things that we find difficult.

Communicating to share experiences

Children also learn the joy of experience-sharing within the guided participation relationship.

We use experience-sharing communication approximately 80% of the time in our daily interactions with others. The ability to share our experiences with someone is a uniquely human characteristic. No other species has the capability of sharing thoughts and feelings. Sharing experiences allows us to communicate about not only our external world, but our internal world as well. It provides us with the opportunity to talk about our past, present, and future. Not only are we able to share our experiences, but we are able to learn about others’ experiences. We can determine what thought processes they are using, and how they may be feeling about a shared experience.

However, experience-sharing communication is messy and unpredictable, with unexpected variations and elaborations being introduced sometimes on a moment by moment basis. If a child hasn’t learned to manage uncertainty and unpredictability, they will not feel safe or competent with experience-sharing communication and will likely withdraw from it.

Helping children to connect with others

Over time, it is possible to put the guided participation framework around an autistic child so that they are gradually exposed to, and better able to manage and enjoy uncertainty and unpredictability whilst also having experiences of competence and success.

The motivation to use language comes from experience-sharing

We have already seen Lucy thoroughly enjoying her connection to Jo whilst reading a book. For ease of reference, here is the clip:

The whole vibe of that clip is one of Lucy’s genuine enjoyment – both of the book and, more crucially, of her relationship with Jo.

More recently, as a result of Lucy’s continued participation in the guiding relationship at school, this increased connection is showing itself in Lucy’s motivation to use the spoken word to share much more – not just to share experiences but also to physically share as well. She is demonstrating a real interest in the thoughts and feelings of others and in being connected to her communication partner. Some examples are given below:

  • Lucy and Jo were sitting together and Lucy was under a blanket. Lucy looked at Jo and said "Jo share blanket" and gave Jo half of her blanket!
  • Jo took Lucy to a karate party and was joining in and initiating socialising with friends e.g. "Let’s go to Isobel’s" and "Robyn come in the car" showing she is motivated to interact with other children.
  • Lucy has started asking questions as a way of initiating reciprocal conversation. Jayden had made Lucy a pretend snail out of plasticine. As she and Jo walked into her classroom, Lucy couldn’t see the snail and said "Where’s snail?" Crucially, during this exchange, Lucy was looking directly at Jo rather than asking the question without directing it. This is a clear example of Lucy referencing Jo for information as well as sharing her emotion around the loss of the snail. Jo was then able to experience-share back with Lucy her own confusion and dismay at not being able to find the snail. They went on a ‘hunt’ to find it and were able to celebrate their joint success when they did so – another ‘we/together’ experience for Lucy.
  • Lucy’s Dad has fed back that he has noticed that she has ‘more meaningful eye contact’. When this was explored, it was clear that Lucy is referencing more for information and looking for Dad’s emotional reaction to things that happen in their day.
  • Recently, Jo spilled her drink and said "Uh ohhh!" Lucy looked at Jo and asked "What happened?" Previously Lucy wouldn’t have been interested at all in something that happened to another person.
  • When walking around the shops, Lucy asked Jo "What are you looking for?"
  • Jo is working on encouraging Lucy to make decisions independently as much as possible. In the car Jo asked Lucy if she would like the music on or off and Lucy replied "Music on , want to dance" Lucy then started to dance and said "Jo dance! " They were then able to co-regulate around the dancing…..…another ‘together’ experience.
  • During lunch, Lucy looked at Jo and said "This pasta is lovely" ...wanting to share her experience and showing the beginning of expressing her preferences (likes/dislikes).

We are so proud of Lucy and it continues to be a joy to help her to learn and make new discoveries at school.


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Zoe Thompson
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Zoe Thompson

Head of Development at Bright Futures School
Zoe Thompson is the Head of Development at Bright Futures School. At Bright Futures School, alongside the academic curriculum, we run a curriculum that helps to foster social and emotional development in children with autism. Recognising that autism is a developmental disorder, we use an approach that seeks to fill the developmental gaps that kids have missed out on. We work on a range of competencies including social referencing, joint attention, co-regulation and self-regulation.
Zoe Thompson
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