For a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to keep Squeak safe while we’re out. As is common in autistic children, he has a short attention span for things that don’t engage him. He’s also pretty oblivious to dangerous situations. This has resulted in a few terrifying moments where he’s tried to step into the road at a red crossing light, or decided to practice his hopping skills in the middle of the road.
This is not Squeak’s fault. This is a part of his disability, and it’s a part I have to admit that we have not previously dealt with in the best way. Our elevated stress when one of these events happened meant that we responded harshly, trying to make him understand the seriousness of the risks. Of course, this upset him, and caused him to become resistant to the information we were trying to give him. Clearly, this isn’t a productive way to keep him safe.
It came to me today, as he started running along the path towards the road. He needs to hop, skip, jump, and flail. He’s a young child; he’s learning and practicing new skills like jumping and hopping. The guideline I heard for estimating a child’s attention span is that they should be expected to focus for no more than their age in minutes. That gives a neurotypical 4-year-old an average attention span of 4 minutes. For an autistic child, this could be an over- or under-estimation, likely depending on whether the activity engages the child. Walking sensibly isn’t very engaging.
Why walk sensibly, then? To avoid danger, like trips, slips, falls, and collisions with people (and cars). We need Squeak to be attentive and cautious, especially around roads, but he just does not have the ability to focus for an entire walk. We can’t take away the requirement for safe behaviour around roads, but we can take away the requirements everywhere else.
- To ensure that no activity goes on too long, players take turns to think of a “silly walk” to perform. Parents/carers should use their judgement as to how long is long enough.
- Silly walks stop when approaching a road, the next turn is resumed after the crossing.
- Silly walks also stop when in shops.
- During the crossing, do the normal narrative of checking for cars, waiting for the crossing light to change, but also “walk nicely” across the road, to remind your child that the silly walks are on hold for the moment.
- Be as silly as you like, as long as you’re safe!
Some of our favourites are:
- “ping-pong”, where Squeak holds our hands and bounces between us like a game of Pong.
- “flap like a birdie”
- “walk like a monster”, where everyone does big thumping steps like a lumbering ogre.
- “big high steps”, think Ministry of Silly Walks.
- hopping, skipping or jumping
- “crocodile”, open and close your arms like crocodile jaws
- “disco”, get your groove on
- march like a marching band, lip trumpets optional.
While the game was exhausting, we noticed a marked improvement in Squeak’s ability to focus when we needed him to. There was no walking in circles round us at crossings, or spinning dangerously close to the road. Any time he seemed to be getting overexcited, we toned down the activity to a more manageable level. We managed three trips this way, with only a minor mishap of him falling in a puddle, which, compared to the normal hair-raising experience of walking with him, is a vast improvement.
So why is this neuroqueering? We’re embracing Squeak’s need to stim, his limited attention span, and his disability. We’re ignoring the social conventions that one doesn’t prance down the road like a dressage pony. We’re ignoring the stares, the funny looks and the disgusted whispers and proudly marching autistically.