Bully

You slammed against her to break her,
But crumbled to pieces at her feet.
I can’t feel bad for you.

Advertisements

Teaching Autistic Kids about Consent

My autistic son wasn’t always affectionate. As a baby, he pulled away from embraces. Looking back, I am sure there were many times I stopped breastfeeding him because I thought his turning away or crying meant he didn’t want milk. There are many, many things I misinterpreted before his diagnosis. Because of that, even today when he is 7 years old, I try really hard not to prematurely assume things about his behavior.

As a toddler, my son became much more affectionate. He liked the deep pressure he felt from hugs. He liked to drape himself over my lap and roll around. I knew he wasn’t just doing it because he loved me, but also because it served a sensory purpose. But I valued it anyway.

Now, my son is still very affectionate, but expresses much more love for us while being that way. He crawls in bed with me in the morning and rolls up in the blanket as tight as he can get it, scoots really close, and then presses his feet against my thigh, or bends his knees and presses them on my hip.

His way of expressing affection looks something like this:

“Oh, Baby bird,” He’ll say in a high pitched voice, “You are so cuuute!” He will hug whatever body part is near him, my waist or my arm or my leg or my face, and squeeze tightly (sometimes suffocatingly). “Whee!” He will say and take my long strands of hair in his hands and cross them in front of my face so that if I speak to him I will immediately have my own hair shoved in my mouth. “You are sooooo cute, Baby bird. You are just a delicate flower!”

It’s kind of like torture love. Still, I am incredibly thankful for every single word and every single (excessive) embrace.

But I have recently become aware that it is time to set boundaries. I know my son is completely innocent in his motivation. I know my son is still years behind with his social skills. I know my son has a valid excuse for not acting as his peers in regard to displays of affection. I am in no way saying that his actions should not be viewed through the lens of autism.

But he can’t kiss people. He can’t go to school and embrace his peers and kiss them because he loves them. That might be okay at age 3. It’s not okay at age 7, autistic or not.

I happen to be quite firm in my belief that everyone should be taught to respect consent. You might have noticed from my other blog posts that I am very concerned about the effects of sexual abuse and assault. I incorporated this concern into my parenting by personally asking permission before kissing my kids and allowing them to request physical space, even in an argument, if they think we are standing too close. I have done this with my son especially.

“Can I kiss your cheek?” I’ll ask.

My son will nod or he may tell me no. I respect his answer.

But now the roles are reversed. My son has a new found joy in kissing. It is absolutely a sensory thing. It is absolutely fueled by his autism. I am not faulting him for this. But, I have to address it.

Personally, I don’t mind it so much because I know it *is* sensory. But will everyone know this? No, absolutely not. No one except his family will permit it. That is reason enough to take on the challenge of teaching him about personal space. But in addition to people not accepting that behavior, there are also people who will be triggered by it because they have been abused. Even scarier, this behavior makes children easier to victimize.

Here are the actions I have taken and the rules I’ve established. We will see in the coming weeks what effect this has:

  1. Define personal space and explain why it’s important to respect it with everyone. Let him hear me use the phrase “personal space” where it applies in other conversations, such as when disciplining his sisters for fighting or roughhousing.
  2. Rule: “Ask first before hugging or kissing.” As badly as I want his hugs and as much as I do *not* want to push him away, I do it anyway and make him ask first. I do not expect this to deter him from hugging or kissing. He is seeking that sensory input, so if the rule is he must ask first in order to get it, he will ask. (This is my hope, we shall see.)
  3. Rule: “Do not hug or kiss anyone, ever, at school.”. Perhaps I should make this rule more broad. But because school is the immediate concern, I am keeping it focused on that. Once he accepts this rule for school, I will broaden it to include other places he goes.
  4. Rule: Kisses can only go on cheeks, foreheads, or hands. Nowhere else.
  5. When he asks, “Can I kiss you?” I tell him where and how many times. I do not simply say “yes” or he will machine gun kiss wherever is closest. I say, “Yes. You can kiss my cheek two times.” He does, but will simultaneously grab some strands of my hair and cross it over my face when he’s done. So… we’re still working on that. (BTW, I plan to solve this hair issue by whacking most of mine off. It would be one less distraction.)
  6. Make a suitable consequence. I am not trying to teach him that kissing is equally bad as hitting. So the consequence is something like, “You will lose ten minutes of electronics time.” It’s not a big deal, but it does get his attention enough to make him think about his actions. Ideally, I want him to follow these rules because he understands the importance of personal space, not because he’s afraid of losing electronics time. But, you and I both know it’s not that easy with most kids. If I sense that he begins to do it just to cause a negative reaction, then bigger consequences will apply.

I write about a lot of things here, not always Autism. But this particular topic is for the parents of autistic kids who follow my blog. Despite writing about many topics, most of my readers find me through searches about autism, about which I am no expert. I simply share my own experiences and what little bit of knowledge I glean from raising my son and hope it helps others. If anyone else (parent, teacher, or autistic) has something to add about this topic, please feel free to post a comment. I’m curious to know if you have dealt with this, what has worked, or what did not. Your insights are just as valuable as mine. ❤

Call Me By My Name

Let’s talk about name calling and why people do it. We’ll start with something that happened this weekend.

A boy came to our Minecraft server and broke apart something my daughter built. (These kids are 11 & 12 years old.) He said he thought what my daughter built wasn’t very good and he could do it better. My daughter then banned him from our server. A few minutes later she logged onto a Skype call with this boy and some mutual friends. They were all playing Minecraft on this boy’s server. When he saw my daughter’s name pop up as being available on Skype, he said, “Oh, great! Here comes the Drama Queen.”

My daughter spent the next hour, and parts of the next few days, defending herself. She repeatedly told me all the ways she is not a Drama Queen.

But that is not the point, at all. Truth be told, the boy was already generating more drama by taking what was a personal interaction and broadcasting his accusations to a group of kids not previously involved.

I said to her, “In your lifetime, boys are going to call you much worse. Girls will do it, too. Why do you think they do it?”

She didn’t have an answer. But I do. This is basically what I told her:

Think of a photograph of a girl you don’t know very well. If, above the photo there is the word “Jane”, you will see her as just a girl like you. You might be curious to know more about her. But if instead of “Jane” there is the word “Drama Queen”, you will already judge her before knowing her.

Name calling is not about saying a word that hurts to hear. Name calling is about erasing the person and replacing her individuality with a stereotype. It’s easier to convince people not to like Drama Queens, Cheaters, or Sluts. If someone can manage to take away your name and replace it with a slur, whatever negative thing they say about you after that is more likely to be believed. Essentially, they are weakening your influence and limiting your power.

Is that 12 year old boy aware of this or is he mimicking society? I guess the answer could go either way. But the end results of the behavior are the same.

Without critical thinking skills, people believe the negative things they hear. Even if they don’t believe it, they may still laugh and go along with it. No one wants to say my daughter isn’t a Drama Queen because to argue about it might make them a Drama Queen, too. Even my own daughter is reluctant to object because objecting is exactly what Drama Queens do.

To relate to this as an adult woman, consider the last time someone called you a bitch just because something upset you, and then acted like the fact you didn’t like being called a bitch was proof the label fit.

A further example is the stereotype of “Angry Black Woman”. This label has been used to effectively discredit valid arguments from Black Women for years. It tries to erase power which in turn will erase passion and ultimately results in silence.

Name calling is NOT just a word hard to hear. We know this. That’s why name calling mostly occurs when talking to other people than the person being labeled. It is an extremely powerful and effective way of erasing individuality, erasing personhood, erasing the legitimacy of words yet spoken. By simply introducing someone as a label instead of their name, I can create a bias with which you will filter their words. You may refuse to listen to them at all. But then how will you know if I lied?

Only critical thinking will set us free.

I told my daughter that I have no friends with whom I have never disagreed with at some point, even after 42 years. Disagreements are not the problem and will not ruin friendships. I’ve even had many friends use the same tactics on me that this boy used on my daughter. Long ago, I probably did the same to them.

“That doesn’t make it’s right to do it. I’m just saying you probably can’t stop people from doing it to you. It’s going to happen again. Keep being you and realize WHY they are doing it and don’t be so quick to give up your power. Don’t name call in return.  If someone doesn’t care about you or how you feel, just let them go.”

I know it’s easier said than done. I look at social media and I’m well aware of how many people continue to name call strangers they’ve never met in exactly the same way a 12 year old would. Even worse, they often jump on the bandwagon to judge someone they’ve never met simply because of a label someone else gave.

I am not great at remembering names. Sometimes I have to ask for a reminder again and again. But I promise I’ll always see a person as an individual, even if I have nothing in common other than our humanness. I promise to let my kids see this about me and hope it spreads. I don’t know what else I can do.

What about you? Have you found any other ways of dealing with problems like this?

The Very Best Boy Goes Back to School

Today is the first day of the school year. My girls were happy about that. My son, not so much. He is going into second grade this year and has been dreading it since the last day of school last year (forever, actually). Last week we had a Meet-the-Teacher Night. He seemed eager to take in everything: the layout of the room, the names on the desks, the beanbag chairs in the corner, the lost and found area, the posters of space. I think, at that moment, he was looking forward to going to school. So it isn’t that he hates school. It’s that school is hard work and a place with endless possibilities for something to go wrong.

Last night when I tucked him into bed for the second time, I noticed (again) just how much he has grown. His big brown eyes looked up at me, unusually focused and searching. Normally at bedtime he talks to his toys and ignores me. But not last night. He needed me to calm his nerves.

Me: “Do you remember when I used to tell you all the time that you were the best boy? My favorite boy? You still are.”

Son: “The best one?”

Me: “The very best one in the whole universe.”

Son: “Why am I the best?”

Me: “Because you are witty, and smart, and you work so hard at everything you do.”

Son: “And I am creative?”

Me: “Yes. You are very creative. You come up with so many great ideas that I would never even thinking of.”

He nodded and his eyes widened: “I am the very top. The best little boy.”

Me: “Yes.”

Son, whispering: “Wow!”

He went to sleep fairly easily after that.

This school year, there will be many challenges for him. There will be a lot of things other kids seem to do easily which he will struggle to complete. But, there will also be things my son will do above and beyond what his classmates can do.

I don’t know if my son can see the big picture, that everyone struggles and that everyone has someone who thinks they are the very best. Right now, the big picture doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my son knows I believe in him.

Grocery Shopping with Autistic Kids

My son earns a $1 for pushing the shopping cart in the grocery store. This is part of his Occupational Therapy homework I came up with after watching him crash a shopping cart into five things in under two minutes. I made a deal with him. If he can navigate the cart at a slow pace without hitting anything, he earns one dollar. If it is a long store visit (over 30 minutes), I give him the choice of continuing and earning a second dollar.

Before we started doing this, he would stand on the lower bar of the shopping cart and lean his back against my chest while I pushed him around. He made zero effort to hold himself upright and was very much like a rag doll. He had no reason to pay attention to anything, not even his own safety. He left it up to me to keep him from falling. So, it was a real workout for me to shop with him. When I finally decided he’d have to walk on his own, because an almost-seven-year-old boy should be able to do that, he was still hungry for that pressure he got while standing on a bar and pressing against me or draping himself over my arms.

Pushing a shopping cart also gives him pressure, but there is focus and effort involved. It is not as easy as it looks. Both hands have to push with different pressure to steer, and the force used to push forward must be balanced with ones ability to turn left and right. My son really wanted the money, or he would have given up. And, today when we got a cart which constantly veered left, he did give up.

His behavior in the store is greatly improved when he is given this task. He is present, in the moment, and actually enjoys the challenge as long as he is having a certain level of success. Being successful is really important.

When we finish filling up the cart, I also ask him to help unload everything at the checkout. His willingness to help me is greater if he has been helping push the cart than if he has been riding on it.

I hope this idea is something that will work for you and your child. Every little bit helps. Is there anything you do while shopping with your child to serve a double purpose?

When Not to Become a Mother

I am a mother of four. I have always wanted to be a mother. I value motherhood. Notice the keyword in these statements. Hint: It is not “mother”. The keyword in these statements is “I”. I am speaking for myself, not all women. Not every woman wants to be a mother. Is that okay with you?

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time. But before we discuss it further, let’s take a moment to watch this video by Elizabeth Plank, “The truth about women who don’t have kids”, which prompted me to go ahead and write about this topic today:

There are a few points I want to make here. I hope you stay with me through them all.

Mothers play an important role in society. Raising children, no matter who does this job, is an important job to do correctly.  We should not scare teens into believing motherhood is a form of torture which will ruin their lives.  We should not speak about babies as burdens even though it is a very difficult job to care for them. But, motherhood is a lifetime commitment. The outcome is the quality of the next generation of humans, for better or worse. Those humans will shape the future and be our caregivers when we are old.  This thing, being a mother, can be done with joy and satisfaction, but it is never not a job. Women who choose this role should be respected and supported by the community because we all have a stake in the outcome.

Now that I’ve expressed my love for mothers, let me make my next point.

I am 42. I have many friends who do not have children. For some of them it was simply a matter of circumstances. For others, it was a choice. But regardless of what brought about the fact that they do not have children, I often hear them say, “I would have made a terrible mother.”

Oddly, men who do not have children do not usually make this proclamation. I’ve known a few men to say they would make terrible dads because their childhood was filled with abuse (which I don’t agree is necessarily the case, but it is their choice not mine). But generally speaking, childless men like to point out what a nightmare babies are, the little snotty, poopy monsters.

But women turn on themselves. Sometimes I think they do it because they feel society demands it. Do they think I will think bad of them for not having kids? Do they think the only acceptable reason not to have kids is if they would turn into child abusers?

Women need to stop this.

It is fine not to want kids. You can love kids. You can have the potential to be an amazing parent. And it is still fine not to want kids. There are plenty of people who will populate the earth. You are not hurting anyone by opting out for whatever reason.

Here’s the thing: Mothers are not saints by default. Non-mothers are not child-haters by default. Our ranking on the scale of good and evil does not rise as soon as we pop out a baby. Whatever good or evil existed within the woman before becoming a mother, it will likely still be there after birthing or adopting a child. Yes, because of hormones and instincts and obligation, motherhood has the potential to change a person in remarkable ways. So does climbing Mt. Everest, joining the military, charity work, and a plethora of other paths. Regardless of the journey, changes do not happen by default to every person on the same path.

So let’s just do this, can we? Let’s all agree to these points:

1. Mothers play an important role in society.

2. Women who are not mothers play an important role in society.

3. The decision to accept or decline the job of motherhood is up to each woman individually.

4. “I don’t want kids” is an acceptable reason for choosing not to have them.

5. “Motherhood is the best thing to ever happen to me.” is an unacceptable reason to pester childless women.

6. You get one life. Make it count in whatever way your heart pulls you.

7. Having a child does not make you a saint.

8. Once you have a child, you can not unhave it. Love it the best you can or let someone else do it. (Hint: there is no guarantee there will be “someone else”.)

9. God does not bless women by giving them babies. God does not punish women by making them sterile. A female’s ability to give birth is only relevant in livestock, dog breeding, and in saving endangered species.

People-magazine-cover-Duggars

10. Love yourself so you can love others. Every bit of love you put into the world will originate from within your own heart. Love does not come from your uterus.

Books

The Meaning of Should

My first grade son is autistic. My fourth grader is in class with an autistic boy. When she tells me stories about the boy, (I’ll call him Drew), I listen to the words she says but I see in my mind the future for my son. I know every autistic child is different. I will give room for my son to be whatever he will be, better or worse, and love him just the same. But what lies ahead is such a mystery with so many possibilities.

The story my daughter told yesterday about Drew did not make me think of my son’s future as much as I thought of his past. There is a consistent trait among those on the autism spectrum which is to take things literally. Common misuse of words is accepted by most of us, but flies under the radar of ASD kids. As an added complication, when autistic kids speak literally with their learned use of words, they are often misunderstood because other kids learn the common misuse of those words or a variety of uses not yet explained to the autistic kid.

So, before I tell you the story, I have to say that my response to it was to say, “awww” in a way that meant I thought it was both cute (because it reminded me of my son), and sad for Drew. My daughter said, “Why did you say, ‘awww’ about what he did?” Because she, and probably all of her other classmates, did not understand the inner workings of Drew’s mind which caused this event take place. They thought he had been bad.

The story:

In music class, the fourth graders are learning to play the recorder by doing what is called, Recorder Karate. If they successfully play a certain song, they get a “belt”, which is a colored string to tie around the base of their recorder. My daughter is on red, which means she will next try for brown, and then her black belt. Drew was on his brown belt and trying for his black belt. (I was very impressed that Drew was doing so well playing an instrument and it made me hopeful for my own son.)

Well, Drew did not play the song well enough to earn his black belt. The music teacher told him he would have to try again the following week. Drew was upset and began to cry, but it was not a meltdown. He was just sad.

After they walked back to the classroom, another classmate noticed Drew was crying. The classmate said, “You played that song really well, Drew. You should have gotten a black belt.”

Drew got a big smile on his face and jumped up and down, clapping.”Yay!” He said, and ran out of the room (breaking a rule), and all the way to the other side of the school to the music room.

My fifth grader interjects here to say, “That was Drew? We all heard someone running down the hall. My teacher opened the door but whoever it was had already gone out of sight.”

My fourth grader laughed,  “Yes, that was Drew. He went into the music room and grabbed a whole handful of black belts and tried to yank them off the hook. When the teacher told him he couldn’t have one, he started screaming and had to be taken to the resource room for the rest of the day.”

I felt so bad for Drew because I knew he misunderstood and thought “You should have” meant he literally should have. It’s a phrase we avoid with my son unless we are telling him a rule. Because to him, what is the difference between these things:

  • You should walk in a straight line.
  • You should keep your hands to yourself.
  • You should raise your hand before you speak.
  • You should have gotten a black belt.

Because Drew was instantly happy and not mad by the statement, “You should have gotten your black belt,” he obviously assumed it was a rule he didn’t know about. He thought it was an absolute fact that he should get it. If he had understood it the way the classmate intended, Drew might have gotten upset or resentful, but would have likely not gone to the music room and attempted to physically get one.

So why did he grab them all? Fine motor planning is difficult.

Here is where I see the tragedy in this story:

Not one person had all the details. I’m not sure if any teacher knows that the classmate told Drew he should have gotten a black belt. Without that key piece of the puzzle, how can they assess what was happening? How would they know that Drew was doing what he thought he “should do”? To the teachers, Drew was breaking many rules and it’s human nature to believe he was angry about not getting a black belt. And maybe Drew was a little angry about that, but it wasn’t his motivator.

The classmates were in an opposite position. They all knew that Drew was told he should have gotten a black belt and they thought it was funny that those words had sparked Drew to do what he did. But they didn’t know why that happened. To them, it was unusual. An unusual kid did a rebellious thing, he broke the rules in a way a lot of kids envy, and when it was all over, he was still just an unusual kid. Everyone laugh, now.

I see it in my own son that he knows he doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids. Lots of kids will call out to him to say hello, especially kids in the older grades. He has potential to be a popular kid, one everyone knows and mostly everyone loves. But… who will understand him?

It is no wonder many autistic kids, as well as adults, are closest to their primary caregiver. Being understood and not needing to explain with words is heaven. Being misunderstood and unable to find the right words to explain is hell. I’m not sure when it was that Drew finally understood for himself what had happened yesterday. It couldn’t have been easy. I just hope he was able to find a moment of peace to build up his strength before going back into what must feel like an alien world. All that ordinary looking stuff autistics do at school is hard fought to accomplish. They honestly deserve many black belts for more than just Recorder Karate.