Monday, September 22, 2014

Reciprocity: Keeping the Ball Bouncing.

Reciprocity. Not a word I used in casual conversation until I entered the world of speech therapy with my son Tate who was without it. Reciprocity is defined as the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. I think of reciprocity as sort of like a game of catch. One throws “the ball” (the topic of interest) to another who catches it and throws it back. A person with social skills can keep the game of catch going for quite a while without losing interest in the game or dropping “the ball.”

Social skills, as most other things, have to be taught systematically to Tate. He does not pick things up from his environment. Then there is the fact that autism and reciprocity are like oil and water. Tate is not interested in others and hearing what they think about much of anything so asking them and attending to their answer would not come naturally to him.
Tate, age 12

It has taken years of teaching and reinforcing but we have recently seen some significant progress. Tate has started asking others how they feel or how they are doing, if they have first asked him. Granted, it does not mean he is actually INTERESTED in the answer they give but at least he appears to be. 

The first time I asked Tate what he had done “today” and he gave me an answer and then reciprocated with, “What did you do today?” I was blown away. He had done it! Did that mean he had mastered social reciprocity? Were we about to see some real back-and-forth social interaction? Were we going to start hearing real conversation from him? I was elated.

The second time I heard this new “skill” used was when I asked Tate, “What are you eating?” and he answered my question and said, “What are you eating?” I was not eating anything and it was obvious. Why had he asked me what I was eating? It left me scratching my head. The third time Tate demonstrated reciprocity was when I asked, “What movie are you watching?” and he answered and said, “What movie are you watching?” I was not watching a movie. So as time went on and we saw more and more of Tate's version of “reciprocity” I realized that although we had progress we did not have real conversation. What we had was actually a sort of glorified echolalia, or parroting. Sometimes it sounds like he is trying to be a real smart alack but he is absolutely not. He is trying to use the rule that we have taught him. When I ask him, “Have you brushed your teeth?” and he answers and repeats the question it sounds like he is being disrespectful or mocking me. He does not have a clue that it sounds that way. 

Like most other things we teach Tate, we teach the general rule and then we have to teach all the exceptions to the rules. Most children just learn these things from their environment. Most children have brains that are like sponges, absorbing major social rules and all the tiny nuances to the rules. So how do I teach Tate the exceptions to the reciprocity? Hmmmm. I haven't figured this one out.


Some situations I find myself in with Tate are comical. Recently, we were in a public place and I wanted to give Tate the opportunity to visit the men’s room. I quietly asked him, “Do you need to go to the men’s room?” He loudly responded, “No. Do you need to go to the men’s room?” That got some attention from others. Yesterday we ran into a friend in town and she asked Tate if he liked it at the Junior High. He responded, “Yeah. Do you like it at the Junior High?” She looked at me and laughed. She’s about sixty years old and Junior High is long behind her. Tate is about to have a birthday and an older sibling asked, "What do you want to do for your thirteenth birthday?" Tate responded with, "I want to go to Chuck E Cheese. What do you want to do for your thirteenth birthday?" That sibling is 24 years old. 

He’s got the general rule down though! We cannot get a question past him that he does not reciprocate! In the meantime, be careful what you ask him! 

If you liked this post, here is another similar one you might like: What brought you here?

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