Social Interaction is something that we learn best from our peers as we grow up. However, it is not something that we can learn if we are so busy protecting ourselves from the stimulation in the world around us when we are little. If we want our little ones to learn how to socially interact we must ensure that they feel safe in the places where we are teaching these lessons.
Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs which must be met for any human being to reach their full potential. The lowest level of this model includes biological needs such as food, water, oxygen, rest, sexual expression and RELEASE FROM TENSION (anxiety). The next level in the hierarchy is a SENSE OF SAFETY. He claims that the other levels of the hierarchy including attachment, esteem and cognitive growth cannot be accessed until the first two levels are in place. In other words, our ability to socially interact is directly connected to our anxiety level and the sense of safety that we have in our world.
I do not believe that these levels are as concrete as described by Maslow, but it still is important to understand that we cannot expect children with autism to communicate and socially interact with us if they don't feel safe with us. I have found that communication and social interaction comes much more easily in places where they do feel safe, such as my office. When we have group meetings for adults, who are safe with each other and with me, one sees a different interaction compared to how they appear out in the real world. We have often had people, who have accompanied them to the group for one reason or another, comment on how one wouldn't know that this was a group for autism if they didn't see the sign on the door. There is no need to use protective behaviors and words and interactions flow easily. We haven't "cured" autism. We have created a place (sense) of safety and lowered the tension. By providing the safety we allow these adults the freedom to access what is innate within.
Throughout the years a myth about autism as being a sense of aloneness has been perpetrated by those who only understand autism from the outside. We must understand that the need for protection and use of shutdown to feel safe are creating our definition of their state. When you really get to know people on the autism spectrum you will find that they are as connected to the rest of us as we are to each other. The barriers to social interaction are not placed there by those on the spectrum but by the rest of us who are not willing to make the effort to understand or to accommodate to their needs. One of the strongest messages from the authors in Sharing our Wisdom is their desire to be fully included in our world.
Reducing the level of anxiety from within has also proved to be effective in allowing those on the spectrum to socially interact comfortably with the world around them. When we first started with the SCIO we had all sorts of toys and activities available for the clients so that they could remain hooked up to the machine as comfortably as possible. In the beginning a lot of effort was taken to move quickly from one activity to another. By the end of 8 sessions all of my clients on the autism spectrum were able to sit and converse with us without a problem and preferred to converse rather than engage themselves in the other activities. I hadn't expected that to happen but it did. Parents also report that their children, who have been on the SCIO for a number of times, are now playing with their siblings normally at home without any special effort from anyone to make them do so. This indicates that it is not social interaction that is the problem but instead the level of anxiety. It's time to move our focus away from symptoms.