Today I’m writing more about language. I’ve been thinking about adults who say “we” when talking to or about clients or children with disabilities, as well as children in general.
I want to acknowledge that different people have very different levels of education, English language fluency, and ability to monitor their own speech. I sometimes get frustrated with activists who seem convinced that you can’t fight for social justice without using exactly the right language– language that is unfamiliar to most people.
I am a very language-oriented person, and it is difficult for me to write simply (for example, the first sentence of this post was originally “Continuing with my prior theme of dissecting language…”). I’m trying to become more accessible, since my natural writing style is hard for many people to read and understand.
Back to the topic.
There is a tendency for adults working with the disabled to use unnecessary plurals: that is, to say “we” when talking about something the other person is doing. I’ve seen some understandably hostile reactions to this in the advocacy community. But I also realized that I do it sometimes. So I started trying to figure out when and why.
People usually say “we” to small children, disabled or not. Sometimes it really is a plural, and sometimes not. I think it’s hard to see the difference with babies, because the adults do almost everything for them or with them. “We’re going you upstairs to change your diaper” definitely involves both parties. And sometimes the adult is really just talking to themselves. “Are we having a cranky day?” isn’t a question most babies will answer.
Other times, it’s like the parent is talking for the baby. “We need a nap” really means “The baby needs a nap” (although I bet Mom would like one, too!). I think this way of speaking makes people angry when a non-disabled person is speaking for a disabled person. Autistic rights activists get particularly upset about phrases like “We’re having a bad day,” when the speaker really means that a child (or even worse, a disabled adult) is having a bad day. Of course, it’s often true that if a person is having a rough day, their caregiver is struggling as well.
I’ve used “We’re having a bad day” when talking about my disabled clients, especially if they are present, and I thought about why. One reason is because saying “He/She is having a bad day” sounds a little bit to me like I am blaming that person, when the truth is that I’ve probably made some mistakes that contributed to their bad day. It also sounds like I am totally uninvolved, and that feels impolite too. “We” feels more inclusive. Talking about someone in front of them is different than talking about you and that person. It’s usually rude to say “S/He’s going to the beach” in front of that person, but it’s perfectly fine to tell someone “We are going to the beach.” Really, though, it would be best to say something like “Today has been hard on everyone,” or “I think she’s had a lot of frustration today,” or “He seems upset.” I can’t know exactly what they are thinking or feeling; I can only guess.
Sometimes”we” really means “we.” “We are going to pick up your toys,” can mean “You and I will pick up the toys together,” and that’s just fine.
What really bugs me is when someone, usually a professional, says “We’re going to pick up our toys now,” or “We need to put away our shoes,” or “We need to finish our lunch,” or “We need to earn three more tokens,” when they really mean “you” in all those cases. We don’t talk that way with typically developing children, even when we are talking about doing something together. We say “I’ll help you pick up your toys,” or “You need to eat your lunch,” or maybe “Let’s put away your shoes.”
Using “we” and “our” when you mean “you” and “your” is infantilizing. I remember, as a fourth grader, our entire class being horribly offended when a substitute teacher (who usually taught kindergarten) said “Let’s all follow Mrs. Spitzer to the cafeteria now!” She was guilty of referring to herself in the third person (of course, I have changed the name) as well as addressing us in the first person plural.
Now, sometimes people do use “we” in instructions. If you watch cooking shows, you’ll hear things like “Now we’re going to put our cake in the oven” or “We need to cut all these vegetables up really small, because we want them to cook quickly.” And usually the speaker is giving a demonstration at the same time. This can work in a classroom or therapy session, as in “We can use a graph to show this trend” or “We can mix red and blue paint to make purple.” At least, it works as long as the teacher isn’t using that awful sing-songy baby voice…
The other way that it’s sometimes OK to use “we” is to make a general statement. When adults tell children, “We cover our mouths when we sneeze” or, “We need to share with our friends,” they mean “I do this and so should you” or “This is what people are supposed to do.” Making a general statement can take the sting out of being corrected. I have a client with Down Syndrome who reacts badly when confronted directly but is happy to modify her behavior when I phrase it as a general rule, such as “Young ladies say excuse me when they burp” or “Remember, we always say thank you for gifts.” But this method, too, needs to be done respectfully.
As usual, my underlying message is about the need for respect. A good general rule is: If you wouldn’t say it to a non-disabled person, don’t say it to a disabled person. But that’s easier said than done. It’s hard, too, to speak in an age-appropriate way with someone who doesn’t understand the things a typically developing person their age understands. Remember that what goes around comes around: you can’t teach someone to be respectful unless you are respectful to them.
Anecdote from today. I was out walking with a teenage client and her BI. We’re working on teaching her to cross the street safely– stop, look, then walk. She’s not particularly interested in learning this. She’s used to having someone else take care of it for her, and she’s generally unenthusiastic about any task that requires her visual attention.
We reach an intersection, and stop. The BI prompts her to look to one side and then the other.
“Any cars?” She asks the client.
“Yes,” the client answers, although the street is completely devoid of traffic.
Now, this may well have been sheer laziness on our client’s part. “Yes” is often her default answer, and she tends to be a bit lax about yes/no questions. I have a hunch that the reason for this careless approach is that it only ever takes two tries to get a yes/no question correct, so why bother thinking about it too much? You say”yes” and then you get told “good job” or “try again.” Big deal.
(I also suspect this client of deliberately answering wrong at times during easy tasks in order to spend more time on those tasks rather than harder ones– a metaphorical “dragging her feet” tactic. So far, I seem to be the only person who has noticed this. On the other hand, she’s tricked me a number of times into helping her with a task that I later find out she’s perfectly capable of doing on her own.)
Returning from my tangent here: there is another possible explanation for her wrong answer today, and it goes back to what I said last time about precise language. Language has a lot of subtext and context, and we process them so automatically that we don’t even consider the possibility that our assumptions may not be obvious to someone else. The BI asked the client if she saw any cars. And there were plenty of cars– parked alongside the road. Is it possible that our client simply didn’t think about the purpose of the question and so misinterpreted the connotation?
“Are there any cars coming towards us?” I clarified. The BI laughed as she realized the possible misunderstanding. Unfortunately, our client’s attention had already moved on to other things, so I didn’t get a chance to find out if my rephrasing of the question was useful.
This is one of many reasons that I really wish ABA practitioners would give their clients brief explanations of tasks and their purposes before starting each task. It doesn’t do much good to teach someone to look both ways and report on the presence or absence of cars if they don’t understand that the purpose of this activity is to decide whether or not it’s safe to cross the street.
I might as well take a moment to point out that there are valid arguments on both sides here. Reasons to explain a task briefly beforehand include:
- The client might be able to judge how important this particular activity is for them (eg., they might be more attentive if they understand that the purpose is to keep them safe);
- The client might be less frustrated with a seemingly meaningless task if they can see that it is a step towards a larger goal;
- Offering an explanation is a form of courtesy and respect, of treating the client as an intelligent human being and presuming competence. If they can’t understand the explanation, there’s really no harm done, while if they can understand it, it seems rather rude not to offer one.
Reasons against include:
- Letting the client decide how important they consider a task can backfire, as children’s priorities are not always the most sensible;
- There is the possibility that the way the explanation is phrased will create misunderstandings that interfere with learning the task;
- On a related note, having the end goal in mind from the beginning might lead to the client skipping important steps in their haste to reach the result;
- Caregivers and therapists have to be more vigilant about laying blame on a client who fails at a task despite having had it explained. It’s very hard to remember that understanding the rules/steps and following them are separate skills. Also that being able to repeat the reason for something doesn’t necessarily mean understanding that reason. (I am reminded here of an anecdote in the memoir “Following Ezra” that goes something like this: the boy steals something from a classmate. To discourage this, his father tells him that when he steals, he disappoints both his father and God. The boy memorizes this lesson… and comes home the next day to cheerfully report, “Hey Dad, guess what? Today I disappointed you and God!” He had learned the words of the lesson but not the meaning, or at least not the implication, obvious to most people, that disappointing dad and God is not a good thing. He wasn’t a malicious kid, just an oblivious one. Fortunately, his father understood this and tried explaining it a different way.)
So, this post got a lot longer than I intended, and now I can’t think of a clever way to wrap it up. I hope I’ve given you something to laugh about and something to think about.
This paragraph was originally at the end of the post, but I think I should start with it instead. The purpose of this essay isn’t to “dump on” ABA people, teachers, or anyone else who has a disabled child in their lives. I’ve made dozens of mistakes I know about, and even more that I don’t, and I suspect I will continue to make mistakes. That’s why I want to remind you all to think critically about what you do and say and how you do and say it. Think about the words you use and the messages you give without words. Try to imagine the perspective of your students or clients or children, and if you can’t imagine it, read more stuff written by adults with disabilities.
It was a minor thing that got me thinking about language. I was watching a middle-school level nutrition lesson for a profoundly autistic boy, and overall it was a good lesson. But it contained the following line: “I am lactose intolerant, so I should stay away from dairy.” Although I understand figures of speech very easily, I also often notice when the logical meaning of words is not the same as the intended meaning. So I thought, “No, he doesn’t need to ‘stay away from’ dairy, he needs to not eat it.” There’s a difference. This isn’t a food he has a contact allergy to; it’s just something that will upset his digestion.
I’m sure this strikes most people as a ridiculously small thing to fuss over. But so often, even non-autistic children misunderstand what adults tell them. Most of us can remember being unreasonably afraid of something– or hoping for something impossible — because an adult said something we misinterpreted, took too literally, or didn’t realize was a joke. Sometimes we hold these misconceptions for years. For an autistic child, who tends to take language very literally, this probably happens far more often. Even the phrase I just used — to “take language” a certain way — can be confusing, as it uses the verb “take” in a sense that only exists in idioms (I am indebted to Judy Endow’s book “Make Lemonade” for this particular example, although in her case she was confused by the phrase “take care”). Often, the context corrects the confusion, and academic misunderstandings are rarely critical. But when a child is learning about their own healthcare, the language must be as accurate and precise as possible.
I’m also not sure how I feel about lessons given in the first person. When a client or student reads a social story designed to give instructions, it makes sense to think this way, as in: “I will put on my shoes before going outside,” or “When I have a question for the teacher, I raise my hand and wait until the teacher says my name.” Non-autistic people also use these kind of internal instructions. Examples include internal “pep talks,” meditation mantras, and self-reminders during a busy day (e.g. reciting “I have to go to the bank and then buy cat food”).
But it often feels weird to me when teachers or therapists write and read these sorts of instructions. Perhaps some of my objection comes from the fact that these writings often make statements about the client/student’s feelings or thoughts in a way that an outside observer cannot possibly know. Or they try to tell the student/client how to feel.
I ran into trouble with this recently. A preteen client was having difficulty waiting in line for the slide at the playground. If other children were ahead of him, he would often shove them roughly aside, and then had to be removed from the situation. Having witnessed this several times, I developed some thoughts about why this particular circumstance was so hard for him.
First, the playground we always went to was usually quiet, so there was rarely a need to wait for the slide. He didn’t expect the waiting, so he didn’t handle it well. The other problem was a conflict with another social rule he knew: saying “excuse me” when he needed to walk past someone. This skill had been very heavily reinforced at home, where he otherwise tended to crash into people while running around the house. Generally, when he said “excuse me,” someone would step aside and let him pass. At the slide, however, he would say “excuse me” to the child in front of him, but they would not let him pass, and he would become upset. I suspect that he was angry: as far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing, and it was the other kids who weren’t following the rules.
I brought these points up to his ABA team and suggested that he needed a social script about waiting for the slide (and then had to explain that a “social script” wasn’t necessarily a verbal script but could also mean an internal set of rules for handling a situation). I was happy to see, next time I arrived, that they had put together a little social story for him. I half-listened to them read it to him before one playground trip, and planned to read it to him myself next time. When I did, however, I discovered a few problems. The script went something like this:
“My name is Joshua. I love to go to the playground and go down the slide. The slide is my favorite thing at the playground. Sometimes I have to wait for my turn at the slide. Sometimes there are other kids waiting ahead of me, and they won’t let me pass them. That is ok. It’s important to wait for my turn even if I am excited. I will wait for my turn nicely. Here are some things I can do while I wait:
I can have quiet hands
I can count to 100
I can leave the line and come back later
When I wait nicely, my mommy and daddy will be so happy. I like making mommy and daddy happy. The other kids will be happy, and I will be happy, too! I am a big boy who knows how to wait for the slide!”
Yeesh. “Quiet hands” is the first problem, but I won’t dwell on it, as others have critiqued it far better than I can (and at least in this family I’ve only ever heard it as a response to hitting or pushing people). The counting idea is an excellent one. But when I got to the last paragraph, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the first sentence. What is this, “Brave New World”? It’s one thing to point out that waiting nicely pleases people; it’s another thing entirely to tell someone how they feel about this. And “I’m a big boy” — Seriously?? He may have a moderate-to-severe cognitive disability, but he’s still almost 13, not almost 3. This kind of language is downright insulting.
When his BI (ABA person) first read it to him, I didn’t pay much attention to the words, but was bothered by the sing-songy overly cheerful voice she used– again, appropriate only for an infant or very young child. I should mention that, on the whole, I love his ABA team. They are flexible, patient, focused largely on practical skills, and generally sensible. He adores them, adores his sessions, and is learning skills that make his life easier and more independent. They are also very fond of the term “age appropriate.” They want him to have “age appropriate” self-care skills, do “age appropriate” chores around the home, and be able to participate in “age appropriate” social activities (he is a very social person, and loves to be included in games and outings, so I’m not against this goal, although I do point out that he also has the right to play in a more “babyish” way when he wants to). They even talk about getting the rest of the family to treat him more like someone his age!
So, with all this focus on age appropriate everything, how about using age appropriate language and tone of voice with him? I use simple sentences and a limited vocabulary, and sometimes I use funny voices for his amusement, but I sure hope I never talk to him like he’s in preschool. So I go off-script and finish his social story with “When you wait nicely, we’ll all be proud of you, and you can be proud of yourself.” And I say it just like I’m talking to any other person.
I have no way of knowing whether this particular client is sensitive to these nuances of language and tone. For all I know, he may be perfectly ok with it. But I’ve heard from enough adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities to know that some disabled kids will definitely notice being talked down to. And that means it’s not ok to do it to anyone.