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. ❤

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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.

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.

Preparing for First Grade, A Conversation

My kids go back to school in one week. So much will change, but we are all prepared for it except my six year old autistic son. Well, maybe he is ready. I can’t be sure. Up until a few weeks ago, every mention of school brought him panic. He would say, “I don’t want to go to school, I want to stay here with you!” I would reassure him that school was months/weeks away, but finally I just avoided talking about it.

Given his steady objections to all things “school”, I thought I should get him to mentally prepare for it. The first day of school is just eight days away. I found the perfect time when he was standing in front of me holding my cheeks between his hands and touching his nose to mine in a nose noozle. I used my high-pitched, everything-is-beautiful voice and began our conversation. He continued to give me nose noozles between twists and turns to look away from me and back again.

Me: Are you excited to go to first grade soon?

W: (ignores me)

Me: Are you excited to make a new friend!?

W: (ignores me)

Me: You know what I bet? I bet you get to go on FIELD TRIPS!

W: That’s ridiculous. (his voice is so quiet, I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or himself. He turns away and leans his back on me)

Me: What will you have your teachers call you, Will or William?

W: (ignores me)

Me: Hey, will your teachers call you Will or William?

W: I do not know. (turns away mid-shrug)

Me: What do you want them to call you, Will or William?

W: (faces me) How ’bout Chill? (nose noozles me and grins) How ’bout we cool down with that?

And then he ran out of the room and I was left with a confused look on my face. It was like he was perfectly fine and I was the high-strung, in-need-of-preparation one. He saw right through me, and in a very witty way informed me that he is no longer a toddler. It’s time to cool down with that.

Never underestimate the observation skills of an autistic.