As discussed in previous articles, episodic memory is the story we create about ourselves over time. We may use this story to share ourselves with others or we may use this story to form a plan of action when faced with a problem. We need our memories to assign meaning to events in our lives and to negotiate new situations in the future.
As children form relationships with their peers, they use their episodic memory to create stories of developing friendships as well as narratives of themselves as desirable play partners. This is a process that unfolds over time as children have repeated opportunities to play with others in increasingly dynamic situations. Early on in peer interactions, all children are concerned with the immediate gratification that comes from events such as going first, playing what they want to play, winning a game and using a toy when they want to use it. However, as children get practice in the realm of peer dynamics, they come to observe unwritten rules and subtle yet ever present patterns:
* Sometimes I win, sometimes my friend wins.
* Sometimes I go first, but sometimes my friend does.
* Sometimes we play what I want to play, but sometimes we play what my friend wants to play.
* I can use a toy that I want to use, but it is also important to take turns and share.
Parents and teachers help to teach these lessons both directly and indirectly and over time, children come to trust that even though they did not get to go first this time, they will probably get to go first another time. Or even though their game was not chosen this time, it will most likely be chosen in the near future.
Because children with ASD may not easily notice the unwritten patterns of turn taking over the course of time, these lessons are much harder to learn. They may be quite good at noticing and understanding turn taking within a structured game in the here and now, but patterns over a longer period of time are more elusive. What children with ASD do notice, however, is when their preference is not honored because this has strong personal meaning to them in the moment. When this happens, we may see a big, negative reaction that leads all involved to form unpleasant memories. Subsequently, no one wants to rock the boat again and we may tread lightly or even avoid teaching those vital friendship skills of flexibility and fairness simply for the sake of keeping the peace.
So, how do we teach these vital peer interaction skills in a way that is not so unpleasant for everyone? For those of you following this series, the answer will be a familiar one: Use declarative language to mindfully make explicit memories that are easily perceived by most, demonstrate how we can use these memories to inform our decision at hand, and engage our kids with ASD in this decision making process. Here are some examples from our trip to Boston:
* Hmmmm… Freddie got to sit by the window on our last ride on the T so I think it would be fair if we let Annie have the window for this ride.
* I know that Trixie was first in line for the Swan Boats, so I’m thinking that it would probably be fair to let Lucy be first in this line.
* I remember yesterday Christopher got to choose which dessert we would share, so hmmm… I’m wondering what might be fair today…
Once these patterns are spotlighted, children learn to self narrate and notice more implicit turn taking opportunities over time. They learn to talk themselves through turn taking that is outside of a particular game, the type of turn taking that is woven throughout life and friendships. They can and do rise to the occasion and become fair decision makers because they now understand and trust the process.
But, if we don’t make a point of helping them notice and subsequently form these memories along the way, they become stuck in the moment at hand, the moment of crisis, the moment when they panic because the thing they want to do is not going to happen. We have to give them information as it happens and mindfully help them recap so that they can learn how to give back as a true friend.