~ 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:
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
This month’s reads
Review: Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
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.
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Book excerpts on website
New! Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition
Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
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©2013 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies