Damion was just shy of 22 months old when Delia was born. Lots of stress comes along with a newborn, and I think in many ways even more stress when you have another little one already in the house. I worried about how I would handle managing two. I worried about how Damion would do with all the changes and how he would feel about it all. And another fear I had was that he would somehow hurt the baby, not on purpose, but on accident.
Damion enjoyed rough play. He loved running and bouncing, being chased, and when his Daddy would toss him in the air. He hadn’t really been around any kids younger than himself at that point. So, I feared that he would not understand and may be too rough with the new baby. Because of all this, we made a point to make sure we emphasized being gentle with his new baby sister. He could come and be close to her and could touch her face, but always slow and easy. We started this from the very beginning and it took off pretty well.
We still ran into a couple of hiccups a time or two. I’d put her down for floor time and catch him trying to sit on her or get a hard plastic toy too close to her head, but with continued gentle reminders he got used to his only contact with her being gentle. When he was gentle, we would praise him by tell him how good he was doing or say “awe” as he was being so sweet. Damion still could not talk at this point, so it seemed that this gently touching her face became his own way of saying “hello” to her. Once he understood it to be a form of a nice hello, it soon started showing in other areas.
We found him starting to touch faces of others to say hello, especially when it came to meeting another child. We still didn’t see a lot of other kids at that time but we noticed when we went out in public places he would often go up to other little kids and touch their face. I tried to give reminders that we didn’t want to touch other people but not having the opportunity to be around kids didn’t give us a chance to establish that boundary very well. He was little, so most people found it to be sweet, but I will never forget an occasion where it was not taken very well.
We were out with the family at one of the local Christmas light displays. I think we were waiting for the light show to start and everyone was standing in a bit of a crowd close together. The family next to us had a little one as well and Damion walked over to the child about his age and put his hand on the child’s face. I was quickly there trying to juggle holding my daughter in one arm and reaching out the other to pull Damion back closer to us when the women said, “Oh, I guess we are not worried about personal space today.” I said nothing else, moved Damion to the other side of our group and continued on with our wait for the show.
I didn’t worry too much about what the women said, passive-aggressive arrogance isn’t really the vibe of people I chose to be around. But it did alert me to the fact that the “hello face touch” no matter how little he was or how nice it was intended may likely lead to problems. So, it was another item added to our list of things to be working on.
He started preschool the following fall, which ended up being the best setting to work on addressing the problem. As he became more verbal and found new ways of actually saying hello, the behavior faded away to a non-issue. I will admit that when he meets a new baby, he will still often try to gently touch their face. Old habits die hard, I guess. Luckily most of the babies we meet all belong to family members who are understanding, but he is also verbal enough now that he understands when we say no or ask if he is allowed to touch the baby.
Teaching interactions to people who don’t always understand the basics of general social cues is not always easy. The things that come so natural to others can be a lot of work for kids with autism. As you can see from our story, even the smallest and most well-intentioned practices can lead to unforeseen issues at times. But all we can really do as parents is keep helping our kiddos move in the right direction and hope that the majority of people we encounter along the way have a little grace and understanding as we work through the process.