Fifty shades of attention

Sometimes the best conversations you have with your kids are in the car on the way somewhere, or while you’re working on something together. I don’t understand why it worked, but we’d get revelations from Michael as we did fence repairs for the goats, for example, or from Paige after we’d get going on sewing project together.

Only in the past few weeks did I come to realize that wasn’t really the case for Sam.

Of course, when he was little, and we discovered that giving him our full attention managed to coax more language and social development out of him, we gave it our all. Mark even took a square tabletop off its pedestal leg and put foot-high 2x2s under all four corners for a play table. We spent hours sitting at that play table with him. Sometimes, it became just like a family dinner table in Japan. We cleared off the toys and sandpaper letter cards and other learning materials and ate our meal there (usually in front of a baseball game, we weren’t saints.)

As Sam grew and his language and schooling caught up, there was much less direct time like that together. We chatted at the dinner table, in the car, just like we did with his brother and sister.

In recent years, though, we noticed that Sam often had false starts to his sentences. Paige mentioned her concerns that she might have to wait for him to start and re-start a sentence as much as four or five times until he could finish it.

I wondered if I needed to find a speech therapist to help him. Sam and I talked about it briefly, and he was amenable. He had speech therapy throughout elementary, middle and high school. We didn’t seek it after that. But I told myself, add it to the list, but not at the top. We’ve got bigger fish to fry (and that’s not a metaphor: we’ve been working on cooking and kitchen management this year.)

While reading a new book on mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step, I had a quiet revelation. (Reading it as part of my work with Shahla Ala’i-Rosales and our new book on mindful parenting for those who have children with autism) What if I gave Sam my full attention when he started a sentence with me? Would that diminish the false starts?

That meant if he started talking to me while I was filling the dishwasher, for example, I was going to have to stop in the middle of my work, not just keep talking and working at the same time. I’ve been in single mom mode for nearly six years now. I recognized this would be training for me, not for him.

I got plenty of reinforcement for the change right away. The false starts diminished almost immediately. I told Michael about it and he was excited for us. He may even take data on my attention and Sam’s sentence starts next time he’s home, if it isn’t completely gone by then.

Shahla told me it makes sense. Many of us have learned that we can carry on a conversation with another person while they are doing something else. But Sam and others with autism may be less sure of the social cues. They may question whether they are communicating. They may think they are making a mistake, Shahla says.

Oh, no. That mistake was mine.


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