Today we spent the day at the beach. It was perfect weather– sunny and warm, but with a refreshing breeze off the lake. We spent all afternoon jumping in the waves, building in the sand, and walking along the shore. Both of my kids had ear to ear grins when we played both classic games (“Mother May I?”) and new favorites (“Zombie Alligators”) in the waist-high water. As I sat in my beach chair underneath a wide, floral umbrella, I sighed with summer contentment.
Our beach-side crew included the following players: me, David, G, S, two grandparents, plus a number of older cousins who came and went throughout the afternoon. Plenty of company for everyone.
The family that settled down next to us had a little girl in a pink polka-dot swim suit. The girl was small, but lively and full of non-stop energy. And every time she flitted past (chasing a butterfly, crashing through the waves, dragging a stick in the sand), G’s eyes followed her with a longing gaze.
After about an hour of this, I decided to take action.
Me: G, did you see a girl on the beach?
G: Yes, she’s right there.
Me: Would you like to talk to her?
G (gazing longingly): Yes.
Me: Should we go ask her a question?
G (still gazing, not moving): Yes.
Me: What do you think we should ask her?
G (cautious, but warming up to the idea): We could ask, “What’s your name?”
Me: That’s a great idea! What else could we ask her?
G: We could say, “How old are you?” and “Do you like swimming?”
Me: That sounds like a great conversation! I love your questions! Are you ready to try?
Over the course of this exchange, G has moved from cautious to excited. He had the desire to interact with little polka dot swimsuit girl, but no plan. Now he realizes that he has all the tools he needs. He is jumping and flapping his hands with anticipation. We walk over to where his soon-to-be-friend is digging a hole in the sand. We plunk ourselves down across from her.
Me: Hello! Is it okay if we join you?
Swim Suit Girl: Okay.
G (he’s looking at the sand, and not at her, and the words come out in one big stream, but he has a smile on his face that’s one of pure, cool confidence): What’s your name?
G (smiling and flapping): Oh, your name is Alice. How old are you?
SSG: I’m six.
G (even more smiles. This is going better than expected): Oh, you’re six. That’s like me. I’m six years old too. Do you like to swim?
As this conversation takes place, I am transported back in time. I remember when G was three years old. He was so unhappy around other kids. He would stand back and make sure there was a wide space between himself and the kids around him. He displayed no interest in joining in when other kids were playing and laughing. And then, when he was four, and he began to develop the desire to socialize, but didn’t have the language or pragmatic skills to do so. I remember the first time he came home from his social skills group and showed me the prized “conversation chain”– a short chain of different colored construction paper loops. Each color represented a different child in the group. G’s color that day was orange. When you participate in the conversation by making a comment or asking a question, your color gets added to the chain. G got to bring home the conversation chain because he had contributed the most comments/questions to the conversation. He proudly pointed to all of his orange loops.
Over two years of direct instruction, the “conversation chains” got longer. G’s contributions became more frequent and lengthier. He was developing the skills to participate in a conversation– in a familiar setting with lots of support and guidance.
Back to the present. The conversation has taken root, and there is a genuine back-and-forth taking place between G and Swim Suit Girl (who we now know is a six-year-old, kindergarten graduate named Alice).
I remove myself from their conversation, and go introduce myself to Alice’s mom. I let everyone know I’ll be returning to my beach chair, keeping an eye on things from under my floral umbrella. G and Alice barely look up from the sand-cake they are baking together.
To anyone watching, the interaction between G and Alice appears to be a typical exchange between two typical kids.
But I know better.
I know the hours and hours of speech therapy, social skills instruction, and behavioral therapy that have produced these skills. I know the hours and hours that have gone into developing goals, collecting data, and modifying instruction. And through every IEP meeting, play therapy session, and behavioral consult, I’ve had a vision. I could envision my child seeking out a playmate, starting a conversation, and joining in cooperative play with a new friend.
I sit in my beach chair, in the shade of my floral umbrella. I sigh as my vision become reality right in front of me.