“Aahan scored only 2/5 in his open book test.” said Sweta, his mother. “It’s not a big deal. You know I don’t push his academics.”
“Why only 2/5 in an open book test? I asked.
“I guess he didn’t ‘get’ the concept of an open book test,” she replied.
However, something kept gnawing at me.
If Aahan was uncertain why didn’t he look around to see what the other students were doing?
Surely, they were all scanning their text books for answers.
You and I do this all the time. If we are unsure about a situation, we automatically look around to check how others deal with it.
We get clues by observing them, and then take action based on what we observe. It’s an integral part of our lives. We wouldn’t know how to solve problems without this ability.
This is known as social referencing.
Social referencing is defined as ‘borrowing information from a trusted person’s subjective experience, in order to help us manage our uncertainty about how to respond in a challenging situation.’
To borrow a trusted person’s perspective, one has to ‘look’ at him/her meaningfully.
In my last article I had differentiated between eye contact and dynamic eye gaze.
Eye contact is a rote, mechanical skill that results in a glazed stare. It implies looking but not making sense of what happens around us.
Dynamic gaze is natural, fluid and meaningful. The child observes people and things around him and responds accordingly.
A child is busy playing with toys, but he glances around and notices that the rest of the class has lined up. He quickly puts his toys away and joins the line.
That’s dynamic eye gaze.
Dear Parent, if your child cannot visually reference i.e. practice dynamic eye gaze, can you imagine his plight?
He is uncertain, does not know how to monitor his environment, does not check the reactions of others and does not share his emotions.
Your child feels overwhelmed by all the sensory input but does not know how to deal with it. He is oblivious that you, his parent, can guide him through it all.
Imagine having to navigate this complex, chaotic and overbearing world.
But there is good news. This essential visual ability can be built. And you can build it in your child. Below are some strategies to develop eye gaze and social / visual referencing in your child.
Social referencing rests on four main pillars.
This is the foundation for social referencing. Babies have a reciprocal, emotional relationship with their parents.
Unfortunately this connection is bypassed in case of autism and it doesn’t develop naturally.
Many parents who join our programs don’t feel an emotional, reciprocal bond with their children. We work to build it up.
You can build this beautiful bond as well.
Move away from task focus. Focus on engagement instead. Set up activities where you both engage with each other, with minimum instructions.
Introduce a simple regulatory pattern with an activity like drumming.
Sit side-by-side with him and share a drum. Play a beat and see if he reciprocates.
If he does that’s great. Share your joy with him. If he doesn’t, don’t despair. Continue being invitational. Don’t force him to play the beat. Just play a beat once every ten seconds and invite him with your eyes and smile.
Once the child perceives the pattern, add a little variation. For instance, change your place. Wait for your child to change his place and sit beside you. Trust me, he will if he enjoys the activity. It might take some time, but he will.
Be so slow that he perceives the pattern.
Remember, a variation can be perceived only if the pattern is perceived first.
You can perform simple activities like ball play, household chores, walking together. These will build up engagement with the child.
The only product we want to build is the engagement and the subsequent relationship.
The studying response (observing response) is a precursor to social referencing.
Babies as young as 6 months study a new object in their environment with curiosity. Unfortunately, this does not take off naturally in children with autism.
It can be built up through simple activities.
Maintain a close zone of connection. Hold hands and go for a walk.
Share things that you see with your child. Pause and point out to the flowers and other interesting objects. Wait for him to share eye gaze with you. Share your joy with your child.
Your only aim is to share your emotions with your child. You focus is not language development or naming objects. There is no ‘agenda’. It’s just about being together.
Eye tracking is a major foundation which needs to be in place.
Here is an interesting activity. Suspend a tennis ball from the top of a door frame. Stand a few feet away and across your child and toss the ball back and forth.
Watch your child’s eye movements. Does he track the ball?
For little children pass a pull-back car back and forth. Again, note if the child is able to track the movement.
If yes, that’s great. If not, give him time. Practice these kinds of eye tracking activities regularly.
If your child can listen to you and follow instructions, he will not find the need to look at you all the time.
Once some amount of connectedness has been developed between you and your child, try going non-vocal for a few minutes a day.
Exaggerated facial expressions, gestures while looking at a book with a young child work wonders.
Once these 4 pillars are in place, you’re in a good place to build social referencing. By this time, your child will have the necessary foundations to engage in activities with you. The studying response and understanding non verbal communication will be in place too.
The iron is hot! Now it’s time to introduce situations tinged with uncertainty.
Imagine this scenario.
Boxes are strewn all over the room.
You and your child are co participants in building a tower of boxes. Your child’s role is to bring a box to you and your role is to stack it.
There’s a catch, though.
He needs to bring a box you don’t want. When he brings a box, pause and wait for him to check with you.
Shake your head and pointedly glance at another box. He understands your gaze and brings the box that you desire.
Both of you stack boxes happily.
Here’s another activity that I enjoyed watching. Note how the mother slows down, shakes her head, uses facial expressions.
My dear friend, I can guarantee you that once your child references you, he will look at the world differently. He will start by referencing you, then others around him and then his environment.
New vistas will open up for him. And you will have played a major function, as a parent, for him.
He will explore the world and make discoveries just like a curious child does.
When Mohit was newly diagnosed, I would try to show him things from the car. I would point out to airplanes, birds, animals as we passed by them.
It broke my heart that he barely looked at them. He was 17 years old when we worked on social referencing.
One day, we were driving by the Khar Kabutarkhana. A flock of hundreds of pigeons rose and flew up together.
Mohit bent down to watch this unusual scenario through the car window, as if he was seeing this intriguing sight for the first time.
I still remember the tears in my eyes and the lump in my throat.
Aahan, the youngster mentioned at the beginning of this post, is 16 now.
From the boy who would not look around to see what his classmates were doing, he’s become an independent youngster who navigates the twists and turns of life, almost effortlessly.
Yes, it appears effortless now.
But his parents worked on the four pillars mentioned above.
Now there is no looking back. Visual referencing took off like a galloping horse.
The other day he had to undergo some evaluations in a city hospital. He travelled home by train all by himself from Mumbai to Pune!
He sent a message saying, “First time I’m travelling alone from Mumbai to Pune.”
That’s him – travelling alone and independently by train.
There is hope for every child.
I would love to hear your experiences with your child, once you’ve worked on the four pillars.
If you would like some help in developing dynamic intelligence and eye gaze, click here to get in touch with us.