Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Part I

Mama Mara, who has two autistic sons including one in puberty, has an excellent question: how do we break the vicious cycle and enable the autist or Aspie to start to understand other people and vice versa? Or, how do we put the bell around the cat's neck?

Disclaimer: I have no formal training in education. My only college course in psychology was over 20 years ago. I have some experience, but not a whole lot, with children and teenagers - including those with IEPs (Individual Education Plans). I would especially appreciate any improvements anyone could offer to my thoughts to follow:

We need to focus (in large part) on the one thing we can remedy the most and the only thing which the autist or Aspie - let's call him Joe here - can control: his own behavior.

Specifically, we need to look at what Joe has been doing or not doing that reasonably offends others, especially peers and superiors (ie, teachers and other grownups).

This is going to involve some tough choices. I believe strongly in encouraging every individual to be who s/he is and to insist on being accepted for what s/he is. At the end of the day, though, there are certain minima which have to be met in order to be accepted. The geek or nerd may be much more likely to be bullied (by other kids and even by teachers) through no fault of his/her own, but if s/he is also behaving rudely or giving people good cause to be scared even if s/he isn't actually doing anything wrong, s/he needs to change.

Now let's go back to Joe. We need to teach him, explicitly and in so many words, what he needs to do and not do, at a bare minimum, to be respected. We can't count on osmosis and imitation in Joe's case like we can with most kids, because unlike NTs Joe isn't socializing and doesn't have the equipment to pull social cues out of the air. For example, we need to tell him "When you meet someone, you should always say 'Hello,' not just walk away. When talking to someone you should stand about a foot away from the person unless s/he asks you to come closer."

At the same time, I would establish a behavior modification system - rewards and punishments. Some - not all - kids respond better to praise and rewards than to reprimands and punishments. It is a rare kid indeed - NT or autist/Aspie - who never or rarely needs to be reprimanded or punished.

I might add that I am not opposed in principle to corporal punishment for anyone, NT or autist/Aspie, though we should exercise caution for the latter because of possible sensory issues. It's a matter of what works best for that individual child - that means what helps that child unlearn bad behavior and learn good behavior as quickly as possible.

(You may be interested to know that Dr. Benjamin Spock - yes, the child psychologist known for his permissive attitude - said in his landmark work Baby and Child Care that spanking can be a good thing, because it clears the air for parents and child. Once it's done, it's done, the lesson is learned and everyone can move on to other things.)

Note what we are focusing on here: behavior. At least at first, Joe can feel as defiant and antisocial as he wants to as long as he keeps it to himself. But he will be forced to act the same way as his more sociable peers in at least some respects. He can have his extra alone time if he needs it, maybe keep his talisman with him if he needs it (though I wouldn't be averse to using it as an incentive for good behavior). But he will not behave uncivilly to people and he will learn to dress up his less palatable desires in tactful form like everyone else does.

Start with behavior...and feelings will follow. That's because the human mind wants to be on the same page. Few people like to do things they think are wrong or stupid. And if they can't make sure their acts fit their beliefs, they will change their beliefs to fit their acts.

In other words, someone who does not see why greeting people instead of ignoring them makes sense, maybe thinking "It's such a waste of time and he knows I like him anyway," when forced to do so will start thinking "Hey, it's a good thing to greet someone because then he knows I'm not mad at him and I'm showing I think he's important. Greeting is good!"

Another reason that will happen quickly is that when Joe learns to greet other kids - they will start greeting him in return, hopefully with something other than spitballs and insults. And when Joe experiences the pleasure of being treated courteously by his peers, perhaps for the first time, he will see why it's good to act courteously to others.

Next post: Back to rewards and punishments....

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