This latest entry in the Autism Affinities Project comes from fellow autism parent, author, and activist Kim Kaplan. Her son Josh has had multiple, fairly wide-ranging affinities over the course of his life, including fire trucks, airplanes, Super Mario Brothers, power poles, the Titanic, sprinkler heads, and Minecraft (the last being a popular affinity amongst people on the spectrum, and one that we did a post about here).
For over a year, Josh’s current affinity has been dogs – something that Kim, as a dog person herself, is delighted about:
Our son, Josh, has always had a dog in his life. When he was born, my older dog was six. When my son was ten, we got a second dog. Three years later, we had to put down my older dog at age fifteen. We were all upset, including my son.
Joshʼs affinity for dogs started over a year ago. He always wants to go to the dog park or, at least, visit the three neighborhood dogs that we know. He loves to talk about dogs, pet them, and log “dog meets.” On our summer vacation, for example, he logged in a notebook every dog he met. I personally love his latest affinity because we not only have a dog, but I grew up with dogs. When I was his age, I loved dogs just like my son.
Fortunately, many people love dogs – both neurotypicals and others – and thus it is an affinity that lends itself very well to socializing. In fact, studies suggest that there are numerous medical benefits of dog ownership for children on the spectrum. Unfortunately, when an affinity involves live creatures rather than objects or media, it can create a tricky situation with less-than-friendly animals – or owners:
Josh was comfortable around dogs, having always had a dog in his life. So when the affinity first began, he thought it was okay to approach any dog – assuming that dog would react just like his own.
What did we do?
We decided to develop a social script for how Josh approached dogs and their owners.
“Scripting,” as it’s called, can serve multiple functions for children on the spectrum. Behavioral specialist Bill Nason writes that this practice “provides them ‘set scripts’ that they can say when they cannot find other words, it can provide predictability in a chaotic world, it can be a fun way of organizing language and playing with new phrases, etc.” This proved to be a successful tactic with Josh:
To this day, he has to ask the owner two very important questions before trying to pet any dog:
1. Is your dog friendly?
2. May I pet your dog?
If the answers are both positive, he pets the dog. At this point, he usually plows forward with his own questions. These are ones that he developed on his own due to his love for information (in this case, dog information). Things like:
3. What is her/his name?
4. How old is your dog?
5. What kind of dog is this?
6. Does your dog get along with other dogs?
7. Does your dog create mischief?
8. What mischief does your dog do?
He will spontaneously ask even more questions depending on his time constraints, mine, or the owner(s) of the dog.
Most of the time, the responses are affirmative and we have no problems. However, Joshʼs poor ability to read facial cues and/or body language means that he doesn’t necessarily pick up on when the owner of a dog is giving off a vibe like, “Hey, kid, donʼt bother me.” They may not be saying that, they may completely ignore my son instead; but I understand the response.
We had to pull him aside many times and explain to him how that owner reacted to his questions. To this day, Josh is never pleased at having his obsession “interrupted” in this manner. But, again, we have discovered yet another great teaching tool.
By developing a social script for Josh to approach dogs and their owners, Kim enabled him to use his affinity to learn and connect with others. On one particular day, that script was broken – and Kim watched in delight as her son adapted to the situation, motivated by his love for dogs to carry on the interaction:
One day, Josh approached a woman with a Springer Spaniel sitting on a park bench. Immediately, Josh launched into the first of his two scripted questions: “Is your dog friendly?”
The woman smiled and said, “Yes. Are you friendly?”
Josh froze. No one had ever asked him that question! He didnʼt know how to respond.
I was standing behind him. I laughed because it was such a cool way to respond to my son. What a great teaching tool, I thought. The woman had broken his script!
Josh smiled and replied, “Yes. Iʼm friendly.” Then, he smoothly asked his second question and went on to have a great interaction with this woman.
Ultimately, Josh’s affinity has had multiple positive effects on his social life, and Kim continues to explore the ways in which his affinity can be a source of connectivity with others:
As a matter of fact, this whole dog obsession has been a boon for our son. We are dog people and I love it that my son is now well known at the local dog park. Owners of dogs (who are mostly adults) seem to accept him and appreciate his love of dogs.
He now approaches strangers and talks to him in a pretty appropriate manner.
Itʼs a start, at least. And a darn good one.
Thank you, Kim, for sharing your story with the Affinities Project. Kim has written several books for parents with autistic children and continues to advocate for autism awareness. Learn more about her work on her website.