The fine (and elusive) art of teaching social conventions to the intrinsically antisocial…

Yesterday afternoon J and I had a difference of opinion.  He thought that, in spite of the report that he’d thrown a colossal tantrum at school, I should be happy and I was convinced that I should remain disappointed and upset.  From the time J stepped off the bus and I was told of his head-banging ways (with his fist, on the wall,) I launched into a calm and measured speech about how the behavior was inappropriate, how he had scared his aide and how I was not particularly pleased to hear that Water Fun Day had turned into a disaster because of HIS attitude.

J is nothing if he isn’t The Little Engine That Could turn that frown upside-down.  At least, he THINKS he has the ability to elicit a reversal of mood with one simple action.  The action of choice on this particular occasion was the Sheldon-Cooper-Fake-Smile.

No, he wasn’t trying to make me laugh (although I will confess that I very nearly did, and that it took all I have in me to control the urge,) he was simply faking a smile to see if it was contagious.  It wasn’t.  I did have to take a moment to hide in the bathroom to suppress a giggle, but I was determined to show J that inappropriate behavior is something I will not tolerate.

The whole incident stemmed from a change of clothes.  Yes, you read right…a change of clothes.  Apparently, J didn’t want the bathing suit I packed for him so he decided to channel Godzilla long enough to get his way.  Instead of saying NO, which would be the abrupt manner in which to address the issue, he decided that emoting would be the best course of action.  In his defense (half-hearted defense, believe me…I don’t think he was in any way justified,) there might have been more insistence than he can handle, but throwing a tantrum is not the proper response.

So…what IS the proper response?  If I could have any wish come true right now (not having to do with financial comfort, tip-top health and happiness for everyone) I’d choose for J to understand the intricacies of social interaction.  “Would you like to change into this bathing suit?”  “Well, no, thank you; I would rather not.”

OK…that’s elaborate, but you get the picture.  I would love for him to understand that he can decline to do something without making it look like he’s just been offered a pact with Satan and he’s vigorously against it.  A simple no, thank you would suffice.  I know this is one of the great difficulties faced by autistic individuals…the fine line between “no” and “no, thank you.”  Since J is non-verbal and, for all intents and purposes, has the mental age of a two year-old, this is even more difficult to convey to him.  While I was upset with him yesterday for not reacting in a way that wouldn’t scare his aide, I was also upset with myself for not yet mastering this social convention.

NO has a finality to it that means to dissuade the other person from any other approach.  NO, of course, doesn’t work as well as one would like when J releases his barrage of rat-tat-tat COOKIES, CHEESE, CRACKERS, NOODLES, etc…  Even I get tired of the inconclusive finality of NO in those instances.

Modeling no, thank you is what we need to do, but HOW????  While modeling this behavior is not impossible, the practical application doesn’t often present itself around these parts.  J is learning to accept that he has options (for breakfast, for snacks, for activities,) but he hasn’t yet realized that no, thank you and yes, please are options, too.  To any parent of neuro-typical children this probably sounds rather hare-brained…how can a kid not KNOW that he can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something???  Well…welcome to the wonderful world of autism, I say.

We walk a high-wire, and often without a net, when we try to teach our kids what is second-nature to others.  Our children -my lovely, blessed J- live without that filter that helps people interact with each other in a more or less balanced way.  We are the filter.  We have to be ever-vigilant of what new thing will crop up that we haven’t addressed.  Some of the things that crop up seem, well, esoteric to the autistic individual they are being presented to…like code words that only a few people will “get.”  NO, J thinks, is the preferred term for him…NO, you can’t have cookies; NO, you can’t run out of the house naked; NO, don’t hit your head, and so forth ad nauseam.  When he doesn’t think NO will do, he lets the wild rumpus begin, and the wild thing he turns into is neither benevolent nor cute.

A few months ago, while shopping, we saw a mason jar with a “butterfly” in it, press a button and off the butterfly goes, flittering about until the timer on the button runs out.  J was both fascinated and scared when he saw this.  He will sit on the back porch step and watch butterflies flittering back and forth, short distances between turns, rises and dips in their flight pattern.  He loves butterflies, and he doesn’t know that it often feels like I’m trying to get one to fly in a straight line when I’m dealing with him.  In cinema, J and his peers (his real peers, this population of kids whose parents often have to resort to Plans B, C, D, E…and AA, BBB, ZZZZZZ) would be the equivalents of Manic Pixie Dream Girls…defined by Nathan Rabin as “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”  A lot of people out there, who don’t know better, think WE -the parents who try to rein in and make blossom these wonderful, difficult creatures- are dealing with something created by our own anxiety, our reaction to a diagnosis.

All I can tell you is this: I eventually sat J down and told him he had to apologize to his aide, and that THAT would go a long way to make me happy.  I got the Sheldon Cooper smile again, and I responded with a legitimate one of my own.  I also am making a point of generating more “no, thank you” and “yes, please” opportunities around here, peppered into the barrage of NO we usually experience.  But, like I told my husband yesterday as we drove sans J to the store, unless we all end up in a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland, social conventions are never going to be easy for him.

Ah, yes…something to look forward to???  Egads!


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