Issue No. 43, February 2013


“To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good
is nobler and no trouble”

~ Mark Twain


Why Johnny Can’t Be Good

Here comes February, with its hype-y, happy holiday, a bafflement for concrete-thinking children with autism. Paper hearts and candy in every conceivable form confront us with the ubiquitous romantic request – or is it a demand? – “Be my Valentine,” or its more succinct version, “Be mine.” How, Bryce pondered one year when faced with the usual classroom party, was he supposed to do that? What do you have to do to be a Valentine? What if he didn’t want to be a Valentine? And “be mine,” well, that was downright scary. How could he be someone else’s? Did he have any choice in the matter or was “Be mine” an order, a have-to?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously chewed over the question, “To be, or not to be?” Paul McCartney’s last musical advice before leaving The Beatles was, “Let it be.” Contemporary pop music is replete with song titles like “I Will Be,” “Has to Be,” “Meant to Be,” “Just Be,” “May It Be.”

“I know he can’t be good all the time,” the exhausted mom of an eight-year-old with autism told me, with tears in her eyes. “But why he can’t he do it for just a day? A morning? An hour?” As we talked, many reasons emerged. But the starting point was this: how is a concrete-thinking child to infer what we mean by “good” when it may be the most subjective word in the English language? It’s an adjective, a noun, an interjection, an adverb. Dictionary.com cites sixty-four—sixty-four!—definitions and sub-definitions. “Good” is a moving target that changes from venue to venue, relationship to relationship. It changes with the time of day and it changes as the child ages. Defining “good” so that our kids can practice and master “being good” in every increment of every situation is an intensive process that, alas, too many adults trust to osmosis, to inferential skills our kids haven’t been taught, to inductive reasoning patterns not present in the thinking architecture of autism.

Even when we define “good,” we often couch it in negative terms. The weary mother’s definition of being good translated into don’t hit your brother, don’t throw things, don’t yell. We might think her list short and reasonable, but any demand that requires the child learn and master more than one thing at a time is a list too long. Small, incremental successes will naturally build upon one another, but multiple simultaneous expectations all but guarantee failure. Consider further: in order to be good, a child must feel good. In defining the “good” we want from them, do we acknowledge and validate the emotions, motivations and triggers behind a child’s behavior? Do we teach her the self-regulation strategies to deal with them, providing time and opportunity for her to practice those skills in a supportive, nonjudgmental way? Telling a child what not to do (don’t hit your brother) doesn’t tell her what to do. Even when phrased in active terms—how often have we said “keep your hands to yourself” or “button your lip,” idiomatic phrases that confuse the concrete-thinking child with autism—it doesn’t address the anger, frustration or fear behind the child’s thumping her brother. Learning to “be good” doesn’t mean she never gets to be angry, exuberant, frustrated or super-energetic. It means teaching her acceptable outlets for all her normal human feelings.

We would never tell a child to be a doctor, be a concert pianist, be a welder or a golfer or a reader without the understanding that a long period of explicit instruction and practice (which by definition includes making mistakes) precede the becoming of those things. When the US Army adopted the slogan “Be all that you can be” in 1980, the implication was that the Army would train the recruit to be all that he or she could be, not that the recruit would achieve it upon enlistment. When “be” is the embodiment of attributes as abstract and culture-defined as goodness, courtesy, courage or patience, it’s our job to break down these traits, shape their relevance to the child with autism and teach in concrete terms how to achieve the goals we set. We must define not only the actions necessary but the steps in social thinking that underlie the actions (see “Being Social Begins with Thinking Social”). And we must hold ourselves accountable for the examples we set.

Our exhausted mother at the beginning of this piece felt better when we broke down her “why can’t he be good?” into actionable increments: Set one goal at a time, prioritized starting with behavior that is dangerous and requires immediate attention, descending to behavior that is annoying but of no real consequence. Begin with, and reward, success in small increments of time (a half hour, not a whole morning), gradually increasing. Provide visual prompts for reference, reminder, warning. Create social stories for specific behaviors. Don’t hold him to a different standard of behavior than his siblings.

The same applies approach applies to the classroom. This true tale, an excerpt from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, skewers home the point:

I’ll never forget a story I heard years ago about a whirling dervish of a girl with ADHD, nine years old. Her teacher proposed a deal, a reward for meeting a behavioral goal. If the girl could “be good” for three weeks, the teacher would buy her an ice cream cone. The girl reported to her therapist: “Is she kidding? I can’t ‘be good’ for three hours, let alone three weeks. And besides, I don’t like ice cream.”

The goal: unrealistic, out of reach.

Guidance offered to help in accomplishing the goal: none.

The reward: irrelevant, and nowhere near equal in value to the effort required.

Here’s a scenario more constructive times six: Teacher and student (1) meet one-on-one and (2) discuss and agree to (3) a specific, (4) short-range goal (5) that is achievable and (6) has a meaningful motivator as a reward. For instance, the student will work toward remaining in her seat or other designated spot during silent reading time, which is the twenty minutes following lunch recess (short period of time following a physical-release outlet offers best chance of success). She’ll start with five-minute increments and work up from there. Success will earn her a token toward computer time, a movie pass or other mutually-agreed-upon end result attractive to her.

Why can’t he be good? He can, but not until we take a dose of our own medicine: be patient. As it so often the case, our answers might be found in the mirror. George Gershwin gave us the turn-the-tables perspective in his famous song lyric: “I am so awf'ly misunderstood. So lady, be good to me.”

© 2013 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any manner


This month’s reads

Autism Asperger’s Digest

Perspective: A Fine (Motor) State of Affairs

I feel by turns irritated and sad when someone tries to make the case to me that fine motor skills are increasingly unnecessary, that computers, appliances and applications can do all that for us, and good riddance since our kids “aren’t good at” motor skills while many are adept at electronics. What comes from our hands often speaks loudly of our individuality, and does so in tangible and sometimes lasting, time-descendant manner. I don’t want my kids to live a life without these things, and it’s a vital part of what I want them to remember about me. . .

Healing Magazine

The People in Your Language-Depleted Neighborhood

Conversational speech is a learned skill, and often more so for children with autism. The essential component of any learned skill is practice, practice, and more practice. And that is why it came to me on a morning round of errands, why it is that small talk remains a challenge for our kids, and how it is that we no longer talk to the people in our neighborhood. I got cash from an ATM, scanned my groceries through the self-checkout line, used automated checkout at the library, mailed a package at the Automated Postal Center. I’d bypassed at least half a dozen opportunities for human interaction. Wall Street Journal publisher Les Hinton is quoted as saying that the scarcest resource of the 21st century, “after water and food and all of that,” will be human attention. . .


Review: Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew

from Lorna d’Entremont, Special Needs Book Review:

From the moment I first opened (the book), every time I read yet another gem of advice I would ask myself, “What on earth happens to children with autism growing up with families, teachers, other caregivers, and friends who do not know this?” My role in all this is to write a review that will convince folks intertwined with the autism community someway or other that they must make time to read Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. This book helps everyone understand the needs and the potential of every child with autism.

Those of you who do not think such a book applies to you, you are mistaken.

Ms. Notbohm’s book is like the coach in your game of life.

Read the full review here

Order from Amazon

Read a full chapter excerpt, “Help Me with Social Interactions,” on my website


Did you miss my last newsletter? On the Spectrum Between Context and Contest examines how our cultural obsession with designating the best, most, top, first, last, least and worst of everything hurts our kids.


I’m booking speaking engagements, readings and book signings for 2013. Contact me at emailme@ellennotbohm.com


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Book excerpts on website

Cick here for book excerpts

New! Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition
In its entirety, Chapter 8: Help Me with Social Interactions

Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
In its entirety, Chapter 3: I Think Differently

1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
"What We Miss in Misbehavior” and "Game Plan for Meltdowns"

The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
“The Power of a Cookie”


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©2013 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies