A concerned friend writes: My friend’s second-grader Jack has autism. He’s very smart, but he gives up so easily. When he tries to do something new, his response is always, “It’s too hard.” He doesn’t say what’s on his mind. For example, instead of saying he doesn’t like a particular food, he’ll say he’s full, but will ask for a snack a few minutes later. It’s hindered my relationship with him because I get frustrated when I can’t read his mind and he doesn’t tell me what he truly wants, needs, likes or dislikes. When Jack says something is too hard, his mom steps in and does it for him. I know it’s none of my business but I care about both Jack and his mom and am concerned that Jack’s lack of self-confidence will cause problems living on his own. I want Jack to be able to succeed in life at whatever he wants to do, but I’m not sure how to help. I’m afraid that if these issues aren’t addressed soon he will continue all his life to let people walk all over him, push him out of the way. Because he won’t speak up, I fear something evil might happen to him, such as someone assaulting him or stealing all his money.
I don’t know a lot about autism and am hoping you can help me.
Ellen answers: Jack is a lucky boy to have such a concerned friend. Having not spent time with Jack, my remarks about him must be general, but I can comment more specifically on your own reactions to Jack. I always begin by telling adults to shift the focus from their own feelings to attempting to understand those of the child. Then I ask them to take a close look at their own adult behavior and see how it impacts and is reflected in the behavior of the child.
He gives up very easily. When he tries to do something new, his response is always, “It’s too hard.”
In three little words, Jack is giving the adults in his life clear direction. They must ascertain why the task is too hard, then break it down into increments or steps that Jack can manage. Many children with autism aren’t able to process oral instructions or follow multi-step directions. When something is “too hard,” the reasons can be numerous. Perhaps the child doesn’t understand the instructions; he may need them presented visually, and he may need lots of patient, repetitious teaching over time. Or he may understand the instructions, but doesn’t have the skill or ability to execute them, and needs more time for repetition/practice of the task or skill. Perhaps he understood the instructions at one point but can’t retrieve the information now, and may need cuing or prompting. Perhaps he fears failure and the negative feedback he gets when he doesn’t meet expectations. He may not see the relevance of what he is being asked to do, and needs a context to make it meaningful in his life.
It’s important the adults in Jack’s life make no assumptions about his abilities without factual backup. Assumption without backup is only a guess. The brain with autism does not work the same way a more typically-developed brain such as your own does. Reaching and teaching children with autism requires that we understand how they think, and adapt our manner of communicating with them. Without that adaptation, they are severely and unfairly disadvantaged. On my website, you’ll find an excerpt entitled “I Think Differently,” from my book Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew. Many teachers and family members have told me they found it enlightening.
He doesn’t say what’s on his mind.
While you say “doesn’t,” the more accurate word is probably “can’t,” as in “is not able to.” Delayed or impaired communication ability is a core characteristic of autism. Besides having autism, Jack is only eight years old, and has neither the life experience nor the emotional vocabulary to communicate on your level. When dealing with a child with autism, always distinguish “won’t” from “can’t.” There is a universe of difference between “will not” (a choice) and “cannot” (is not able to). Our responsibility is to probe beyond the surface behavior and find the real motivation and source.
I get frustrated when I can’t read his mind and he doesn’t tell me what he truly wants, needs, likes or dislikes. When Jack says something is too hard, his mom steps in and does it for him.
Here is where we adults must consider our own behavior. In the foregoing sentence, you’re telling me about your frustrations. Now, take this sentence and turn it around—imagine how Jack feels; I get frustrated when I can never get what I need, what I want. They never understand what I’m trying to tell them. Jack is not only very young, but his autism impedes his ability to even identify his own needs and wants, let alone express them in the manner you deem necessary. Even though you think him very smart, he’s still getting the message that adults in his life are exasperated with him. With so much focus on what he’s not able to do, his attitude becomes, why try? He gives up; for the sake of expediency, Mom steps in, and the cycle perpetuates.
I know it’s probably none of my business . . . but I care about both Jack and his mom and am concerned that Jack’s lack of self-confidence will cause problems living life on his own.
A child can never have too many caring adults in his life, and your concern is a legitimate one. Preparing our children to live as independently as possible should be the goal of everything we do for them. Again, think of how that lack of self-confidence feels to him. Think of how you would feel in his shoes, and let that guide your approach.
No parent sets out to raise a quitter. Yet the seeds that sow a quitter may indeed come from our hand. How does a quitter come to be a quitter? When a child wants to quit because “the going has gotten tough,” and if quitting has become a cycle, it’s imperative to know, not guess at, why.