Years ago, when Gaston was three and a half years old, we just had him diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Anne and I were in mourning, as though officially learning he is autistic meant he had just become autistic. I think we were mainly saddened by the bleak outlook ahead of us. Would he go to a regular school? The thought of him going to a special school scared us. Would he eventually talk? The books on autism and the speech therapist seemed to say "yes" but we weren't so sure.
To add to our burden, our new-found expertise on the subject of autism meant we knew something wasn't right with Rémi, Gaston's little brother. Rémi, pronounced "ray mee", was almost two years old. He didn't answer to his name. He didn't have any words. Eye contact with him was rare and fleeting. When we tried to have him diagnosed, it was relatively easy because we had just been through it with Gaston. Also, the specialists who would perform the diagnosis knew that he had an autistic brother. Autism is a genetic trait: if a child is autistic, his siblings are more likely to be autistic. Gaston's diagnosis was an emotional roller coaster. Rémi's diagnosis was heart-breaking, but it was mainly a step in the bureaucratic process of getting funding.
When a paediatrician showed him how to feed a bottle to a baby doll, Rémi stuck the wrong end of the bottle into the doll's mouth. This type of play, called inappropriate play, is a sign of autism. Another example is how he aligns his toy cars in a row instead of recreating a city scene and making vroom-vroom noises.
Rémi's play was repetitive: he could spend hours dangling a shoelace. It was as though he was trying to thread the lace through the holes of my black Converse sneakers by gingerly lowering the tip of the lace into the hole. This would never work, of course, and he would become frustrated to the point of having a tantrum. If we tried to help him, his frustration and anger would grow. He preferred being left alone, lining up his toy cars, sucking on blocks and dangling the shoelaces. We were happy to leave him alone, because Gaston was full-on enough to exhaust all our energy.
One of the tips in one of my favourite autism books, More Than Words by Fern Sussman, is to interrupt the autistic child's lonely playing. The exact words in the text are "if he's playing with a string, try pulling on it to get his attention. He may get angry and push you away, but this is still preferable to no interaction at all." That advice must have been aimed directly at Rémi and me. Anne was in favour of just leaving him alone: she was afraid we'd do more harm than good. Vindicated by this piece of written advice, I gave it a try. It worked: I got tantrums at first, but eventually the shoelace-pulling turned into a game which made him laugh.
I knew on an instinctive level that the advice was right. I get a little kick out of teasing my own kids. My father was the same: his idea of playing was often to annoy until he got some kind of reaction. A lot of people do it to some extent. Have you ever asked a five year old girl if she was married, just to see the surprised look on her face? Or played "keep away"?
Who would have known that I was doing Rémi a favour by being annoying? As he got older, I could interrupt repetitive, lonely play without hardly ever making him upset. The latest is an elevator game, where he makes elevator door noises and slams his hands together in front of his face as though the doors were closing in front of him. All I need to do is shout "Hold the lift!" or "Hold the elevator!" and stick my hands between his hands, and Rémi will start laughing hysterically. I can even use the phrase "Hold the lift" to help him snap out of tantrums. It makes him laugh almost every time.
The books and experts are full of advice. The list of tips, tactics and tricks is overwhelming: I can easily forget more than I can remember. The secret is to immediately follow the advice which you instinctively know to be true, the sort of advice you would have probably followed even if nobody had given it to you. In other words, start with the easy stuff. Then, when you're ready, you can revisit the literature and decide for yourself what might work (not all of it will) and take on some slightly bigger challenges.