The Dance of Reciprocal Flow
As metaphors and analogies help to enhance our understanding, consider that, in both instances, each child wishes to partake in the “Dance of Reciprocal Flow” (not to be confused with “The Electric Slide”). The first child is partnerless, awaiting an invitation to the dance. When the invitation doesn't come, she may feel hopeless. She may internalize these feelings, frustrated by not understanding others or herself. This may lead to a sense of guilt or blame, which could fuel depression. The second child has leaped into the dance without first having learned the steps. She, too, is partnerless but believes that all those present are her exclusive dance partners, available to her at any given moment. Both children are set up to be singled out for their differences and potentially stigmatized for not knowing the dance that most everyone else was born knowing or absorbed simply by growing up neurotypical.
Developing friendships means either learning the Dance of Reciprocal Flow (and some are more masterful dancers than others) or approximating it well enough such that one blends nearly seamlessly for the time spent on the dance floor. It is a gradual process. No one masters the dance immediately; you improve and gain more confidence as you practice the dance steps. As you've learned, most children with Asperger's Syndrome assimilate information in ways that are concrete and visual.
As your child's instructor in the Dance of Reciprocal Flow, you will wish to map this out for her, similar to the way that some people learn to dance by following the black, silhouetted footprints positioned on the floor. As they memorize the dance routine and position of each step, they make fewer and fewer missteps. The dance becomes more fluid, requiring less effort and less thought. Finally, the footprint outlines fade altogether. They are now visible only in one's consciousness, unseen by others. Some will require intermittent, periodic “polishing” to brush up on the dance steps; others will retain it always, permanently etched in their minds. The importance in learning the dance is to know when and where to buoy your partner so that you both work together to create one whole presentation.
How often have you had a friendship damaged, harmed, or extinguished altogether as a result of misunderstandings or misinterpretations of communication? It happens all the time, every day. You may have a natural advantage in knowing how to adeptly discern slang and sarcasm, tempered with understanding body language, facial expressions, eye gaze, and the tone and timbre of one's voice. Remember, for many people with Asperger's, this must all be learned.
A challenge is that, while everyone dances the dance, they've all had different instructors or role models. As such, they approach the dance with their unique, individual style and flair, reflective of their personality. Some people may even improvise and break the rules, like those with a penchant for interrupting conversation or talking with their mouth full of food or gum. These nuances make discerning appropriate conversational flow difficult, but it really is a matter of etiquette. Your child should never be faulted for being polite during conversation, even if it sounds a bit “stiff” or formal.
Using Music to Teach
To poise your child for developing friends, you will wish to explain the Dance of Reciprocal Flow using a similar analogy — unless your child is passionate about dancing and would relate well. Another analogy that might be helpful in your child's understanding may include deconstructing your child's favorite song. Music can be extremely important to kids with Asperger's, and all music is based upon the principle of call and response. According to the song's composition, there is a time when one sings or plays an instrument; this is the “call.” Then there are times to pause and remain silent in order to await the “response.” It is similar to the way in which two-way conversation is supposed to work.
To solidify this concept, you will want to draw this with your child while you start and stop the song. Help your child identify one singer or one instrument and represent that on paper. Your child may even wish to use different colors to differentiate the participants in the song. Break the song down into portions and support your child to understand how all the pieces flow through call and response. In the most basic example, think of “Frère Jacques.” If sung in “round-robin” style, the song begins with the initial call being echoed in a response as additional communication partners are gradually added in.
Using Cartoon Characters to Teach
Your child may respond well to understanding social conversation when her favorite TV cartoon characters are involved. Again, it will be best if you are in a position to start and stop the action in order to highlight good and inappropriate conversation styles.
Visuals are very useful survival tools in learning for many children with Asperger's Syndrome. Your child may already enjoy drawing or creating computer art now. Often, kids fabricate elaborate characters and complex plots and scenarios. It might be good sense to build upon that when mapping or reviewing social interactions among real-life people known by you and your child.
Help your child to reinforce what she's just seen by drawing it out on paper. Suggest that you both modify the conversation a bit. It may be a good, objective opportunity to demystify a realtime social interaction that failed your child. Using cartoon characters to take on a similar situation is a nonthreatening way for your child to deconstruct the issues. When finished, you may ask, “Isn't this like what happened with you and Leslie last Saturday?” Next, discuss ways your child might approach the situation differently if similar circumstances arise.
Other useful analogies to conversation may include observing how animals interact and envisioning their “voices,” or using the concept of maps where streets and highways converge and intersect. As always, maximize the benefit by using words and pictures, reviewing the information routinely until it is no longer needed.