Shifting Focus: Autism, Understanding, and Obedience
The literal-mindedness of autistic people often requires that we show a certain extra care in the way we communicate with them. Particularly as children, they have not yet learned many of the social and behavioral rules that go unsaid, the ones most other people generally pick up through observation by about age five, the ones that become so obvious that before childhood ends, most folks have stopped even being aware of them as rules. Even among typically developing children, I often see parents get frustrated with their children for asking questions whose answers are assumed universal by adults. I am always sad when I see a parent snap something like “what do you think?!” or “you know better!” at a child who is asking an honest question. (True, sometimes children do ask questions who answers they know perfectly well, but that’s a different story. I hate, too, when a parent says “stop that!” to a young child without specifying what “that” is. So unfair! But I digress).
The other day, I was working with an autistic client, an elementary-school boy. We were at a fountain, and (not surprisingly) he showed every sign of wanting to play in it, which would have been a bad idea in such cold weather.
“Please don’t get your clothes wet,” I instructed as we approached.
As soon as he got close enough, he scooped up some water in his hands and poured it onto his own foot. Deliberate disobedience? Not having attended to my instructions? Lack of impulse control? Or…? A moment later, a thought occurred to me.
“Your shoes count as clothes,” I clarified. And then, because I remembered that many autistic children (as well as those with ADHD and other developmental disabilities) often do better with instructions that tell them what to do rather than what not to do, I rephrased my instructions altogether:
“You may get your hands wet, but only your hands, nothing else.” And he followed this instruction easily.
Now, this child is not perfectly obedient– no child is. He has a mischievous streak, a strong will, intense curiosity, and a frequent tendency to ignore the preferences of his caregivers. But at the same time, I suspect he sometimes gets labeled as disobedient unfairly.
When you give him a rule or instruction, it is common for him to do something that almost goes against the rule, but not quite. Children like this are often said to be attention-seekers, to “like getting a rise out of people,” or to always be “pushing boundaries” and “seeing what they can get away with.” This puts a somewhat negative spin on the situation, making it sound as if the child prefers to cause a certain amount of trouble. And perhaps at times this is true.
But let me offer a possible alternative explanation.
Imagine a typically developing boy of the same age. His mother sends him out to play on a muddy day with the instruction “don’t get your clothes dirty!” The boy thinks about this for a moment and wonders if the rule applies to his shoes as well. So he asks. In words. Verbally. He says something like “Does that mean my shoes, too?” And he gets an answer.
Such a simple and obvious exchange, we hardly notice it.
But now think of a relatively nonverbal child in the exact same situation. He has the same question in mind, but he lacks the words and the ability to ask the question verbally. He still wants to know the answer. And the only possible way for him to get the answer is to perform an experiment, to try the action that he is not sure is allowed and see how people react. He’s not trying to test limits or get anyone upset or cause trouble– he’s just trying to ask a question (as all children do), using the only method he knows.
So please, think of this possibility the next time you work with a child who seems to be trying to get around the rules or give you a hard time. They may just want to understand better, and it would be unfair to punish them for that perfectly reasonable desire. Please assume, at least at first, that the child has the best of intentions. Be respectful of the fact that they may genuinely not understand, may not have the same basic knowledge about the situation that you take for granted. And please take responsibility for your part of helping the child behave well: be as clear and explicit as possible when setting rules. Choose your words with care, in order to make the situation easier for a child who might be struggling very hard to do the right thing.