People, social animals that we are, have an innate ‘stay with the group’ safety instinct. I believe it’s about sticking with the tribe for survival. Then again, it’s so much a part of us, it’s hard to analyze.
Take random mom with little ‘uns leaving Walmart. Mom leads and the kids follow, like little ducklings following Mama Duck. Often, she never even turns around to look at them. And they do stick with her, effortlessly.
Children with social challenges aren’t like this. They don’t have a built-in stay with the group mentality.
This means they wander. Or, they get fascinated by an object/person/activity, and just get left behind as the group moves on. It’s a nightmare for parents, especially when that child is left with a teacher or caregiver who doesn’t – and really can’t – understand.
For example, the very first day of every year of elementary school (except for fourth grade, when he was led by the hand), my son didn’t show up with the other kids at the end of the day. He either got lost or left behind every single time.
This was despite warning ahead of time. Advance knowledge that hey, this kid’s different and doesn’t always stick with the class.
Knowing that teachers and adults have these stay-together expectations of kids – expectations they never think about or even recognize – is scary for parents of challenged children. It is, however, a constant, as each year proved to us over and over again.
So we set out to work on ‘stay with the group’ skills. For his own safety. And, yes, for our own peace of mind.
Usually, we worked with family on this whenever visiting malls or stores. When my son appeared engrossed in a book or at observing an object, we walked on. Not out of sight, just at a small distance. When he didn’t react after a moment, we’d call to him and ask if he was coming.
But we gave him a moment.
It was hard, at first. I was so used to prompting him to come along, stick with the group, stay with grandma, and so forth. But that moment is the golden opportunity, the chance for his brain to kick in by itself, instead of just waiting for the prompt.
After a while, he started noticing when we were moving on. He started – even if he was reading a book at the time – moving to catch up.
It didn’t happen all the time at first. It happened slowly, over months. Even now, there are times when something is just so fascinating he doesn’t see anything else.
But it did happen; something did click in his mind. He will now drift toward a group without being told to do so. The way another child would at two years of age, without even thinking about it. The way everyone does, without a second thought.
This year, I let him go on a field trip without me… and he survived. Had a good time, even, despite wrenching his arm on the mudwalk. We won’t talk about my nail-biting day. For us, though, it’s getting easier to relax as we learn to trust him and his newfound abilities.
And, when school was over, he was waiting with the rest of the class when I came to take him home.
Note: Strategies we used to help him in school before he gained this skill included studying school maps, and going to an adult – or the front office – if lost or unsure of where he needed to be. We also assigned emergency meeting points in stores and malls just in the event of separation… which thankfully never happened.