Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Breaking the Vicious Cycle, Part II

Let's take another look at rewards and punishments. Maybe we can set up a points system, give points for good behavior and tell Joe about things he can trade in his points for, like maybe an extra 15 or 30 minutes until lights out, an extra dessert and the like. Of course, demerits can be negative points. And there should be corresponding punishments if Joe's points go into the negative - earlier bedtime, no dessert, extra chores, etc.

Depending on how difficult Joe finds it to think abstractly, he may not be influenced so much by points and demerits. In that case, perhaps rewards and punishments themselves can be given on the spot - maybe an extra cookie or an easier task, or on the other hand a private or even public reprimand or a physically demanding task.

And yes, we need to expect Joe to accept punishment in silence, on pain of substantial increases in same. Once again, we can't stop him from feeling angry, however wrongly, but we can make him keep his feelings to himself.

That having been said, we must only punish anyone - NT or autist/Aspie - after we know with a reasonable degree of certainty what happened and who did it. It's only fair and decent to hear the accused's side of the story before making a final decision and imposing punishment. And if Joe has reasonable questions and seems to want to learn more about why he is being punished, even if his words sound a little hostile, we should take that as a teachable moment and give Joe all the explanation he needs.

On a related note, if and when a child - Joe or anyone else - asks for help with something, whether it's social skills, art, math or anything else, never, ever, ever express surprise, let alone skepticism, at such a smart child needing help. (I feel that any teacher copping an attitude toward any child - repeat, any child - who asks for help should be considered for formal discipline.) Give the help and also praise him/her for being mature enough to ask for it.

It is absolutely necessary for any child's development, let alone Joe's, that we give him the greatest possible encouragement to seek and accept help from the right grownups. This holds even more if, say, Joe has been an insufferable prig who has spent the school year lording his brains and book smarts over everyone else, including you.

This is a rare - some would say heaven-sent - opportunity to set the example, and explicitly encourage the kid to take a much better attitude toward others who know less than he does about something. If you're a Christian - like my wife - then you believe Jesus made it clear in the parable of the servants that as we receive mercy, we should also give mercy freely. In any case, I'm sure we all understand how important it is to set the example - and to show Joe how important it is to set the example for how he wants to be treated.

Also, I believe that most people, including autistic and Aspie children, secretly respect a superior who shows the strength and confidence to give them better treatment than they've given - and to make the contrast clear.

Punishments need to be swift and certain. Even a relatively light punishment can be effective if given - not threatened to be given, but actually given - right after the event. Rewards, on the other hand, can be tapered off as the habits are learned, but should be maintained for actions above and beyond the call of duty. Such a program definitely should be coupled with counseling - group and/or individual - to help Joe deal with his emotions and to help him connect what's happening to him with the lessons he's learning or not learning.

The beautiful part is, it turns the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle. The earlier Joe starts acting graciously and getting along better with peers, teachers and others, the more things others will include him in, willingly, the more experience he'll have with people, the more accurate ideas he'll have about human nature in general and important situations in particular and the better his attitude toward society will be.

The idea is to break Joe down and then build him back up again. We teach him specific ways of getting along in the world, and then reward him when he shows he's learned them and punish him when he departs from them.

No, he's not going to like either getting with the program or being punished for not complying with rules he's been specifically taught. Trust me, though, he'll like un- or under-employment, poverty, loneliness and powerlessness for years and decades - maybe the rest of his life - a helluva lot less. Maybe, while this is going on, Joe will feel like this is the worst thing that ever happened to him. If it's done right, however, maybe one day he'll look back on it as the best thing that ever happened to him.

Now, it can't all be on Joe. There are mean bullies in pretty much every school. And some of the students can be bad, too. In another post in the near future I'll discuss what to do to make sure the human environment - teachers and fellow students - is as hospitable as possible to Joe's growth and learning, while protecting other people's rights and reasonable interests. A good deal of accommodation will have to be done for Joe, but not in a way that will make him think the world revolves around him.

Meanwhile, what do you think about this?


Mama Mara said...

You've outdone yourself with this two-part post. Turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle is poetic genius. It's a lot to take in, so I'm printing it all out for deeper reading and reflection.


Tanya Savko said...

Your listing of concrete suggestions combined with your insight is truly helpful. I'll be referring back to this one also!