Jonathan missed Lunch Group last week. I kind of saw it coming, because he’d spent much of his Walking Break the day before telling me about his various strategies for tolerating the awful taste of cold medicine. The rest of my gang, however, was flummoxed.
We began, as we always did, with the warm-up activity to the “Question of the Day”. I try, in lunch group, to alternate between structured and unstructured conversations, to give my students practice with the more organic ways in which talking usually happens, but not to leave things so open-ended that the typically developing peers steal the show. So, every lunch group starts with me asking a kid, “What’s for lunch?”, then nudging that child to “pass the question on.” It’s pretty rhetorical, most of the time: not only are all the lunches on full visual display the whole time, but usually, at least two kids have school lunch, which means at least two sets of identical semi-food. Still, the kids like it–my students on the spectrum love the routine of it, everyone enjoys talking about their own lunches, we practice little skills like calling folks by their names.
Saleem passed the question on to Nicholas, who listed his various snack foods, then turned to where Jonathan usually sits. “What’s for lunch, invisible Jonathan?” It was all I could do, in that moment, not to run out the not-an-exit and shout from the balcony outside my office, because this, my friends, was pretend play. And even though I know enough to push back against the usual narrative of children with autism unable to imagine things, I still know a triumph, for Nicholas, when I see it. Within a context that makes sense to him, he was able to make a joke. And his peers were giggling, delighted by his idea.
It was a triumph, and a teachable moment. Invisible Jonathan, were he to answer, would be the last one to answer–everyone else has given their Lunch Report. When the giggles died down, I seized the chance to speak.
“You know… Jonathan isn’t here, and I miss him. I think he’ll be back tomorrow. But hey…if he were here, what do you think he’d be eating?” The kids spent a couple happy moments, discussing what they’ve seen in Jonathan’s lunch box. How sometimes, he has school lunch, but he doesn’t like to eat all of it, so Dad packs him turkey in little plastic containers. “I saw him have hot chips once. I think he liked them.” The jury’s still out on his feelings about fruit.
From there, we talked a little bit about other things we know about Jonathan–what he likes to play at recess, who lives in his house. The kids were surprisingly observant, and overwhelmingly positive; it’s helpful, I think, that Jonathan is one of the most genuinely likeable kids I’ve ever worked with, and I would probably not have gone there if the absent child was one who had conflicts with anyone in the room.
“Jonathan’s not here, and we miss him, but the nice thing is that we know so much about him that it’s almost like he’s here. The people we know…we always know about them. We hold all our memories about them in our brains.” I showed them, then, something that is organically in the minds of all of the kids, in different ways–something that, for some of my students, needs sometimes to be more explicitly taught. Students with autism spectrum disorders often struggle to retain and apply knowledge about the personalities and preferences of others, which is key to perspective- taking and pleasant social interaction. Visual supports can help, as can, honestly, just taking the time to point out that it’s important.
I showed them the Friend File, a brilliant little document created by SLP Jill Kuzma to support Michelle Garcia Winner’s teaching of the concept. We filled one out, right there, for Jonathan.
Socratic question time. “Remember, in our heads, all the time, we have files like this, of our thoughts about friends. Why is it important to think about our friends like this?” Jay offered, “So we can give them a good birthday present.” Saleem said, “To ask them good questions.” Maya said, “to have more fun playing with them.” Nicholas took it all in, with no ideas of his own yet. That’s okay: he’s honestly one of the kids who’s gonna need to use the paper files, because the concept is not yet at all salient to him. I remembered last month’s fiasco around Follow-Up Questions, in which he diligently asked every child who reported about a favorite place to visit if they encountered either of his two obsessions, windmill turbines or Raggedy Ann dolls. He’ll get there. It’ll be awhile. We’ve got enough time.