Like gunslingers in an old western, my son and I are engaged in a showdown. I have dared to tell him that yes, it is bedtime and no, he cannot watch The Muppets movie again (a shame really, it’s great). Realising his screams were not working, he has marched up to the television. I think he’s going to turn it back on, but instead, he punches the screen. There is a moment of stunned silence, from both of us. He defiantly glares at me, waiting for a reaction and looking surprisingly pleased with himself. I’m a little taken aback, but soon rouse myself, and shout at him. Big mistake. I’m not sure what I hoped shouting would achieve, but screaming meltdown probably wasn’t part of the plan. Way to go, Daddy.
No doubt this is a familiar scenario to parents the world over. Nothing special or unique. But, apart from the poorly handled telling off, I’m enjoying the confrontation. I’m enjoying the fact that my son is, for the first time, considering thinking about his behaviour and it’s consequences. He’s thinking about cause and effect. This is not something my autistic son generally does. Most outbursts of bad behaviour are not this thought through. They are not premeditated. They come from a much more instinctively primal place. This though, has more cognitive awareness about it. It’s designed to provoke a reaction in me, because he understands how I might respond. In that respect, it’s a good thing; a sign of development. This is progress.
He’s still learning to be naughty though, and hasn’t fully grasped it yet. The fact that he has to announce his naughtiness (“I’m going to be Supernaughty!”, “I’m going to throw this toy!”, “I’m going to hit my brother!”) suggests that he has some way to go. At school, he has started to do a quick check before an outburst (“I’M GOING TO SCREAM NOW (what will happen if I do?”) It’s been a long time coming. Most children begin to develop this understanding and curiosity of cause and effect, consequences and functional behaviour around the age of two, I guess. Hence the phrase ‘terrible twos’. We’re more like fearsome fours.
More and more, B is stepping outside of his own unique world and into ours. But it’s a confusing and overwhelming place for him, full of things he doesn’t want to have to do but is made to. What use is enforcing consequences on a child who feels like that? Now though, he’s getting the hang of this alien world. He’s starting to figure us all out, and exploring the boundaries. And with this awareness needs to come an awareness of right and wrong, what’s acceptability and what’s unacceptable.
Up until recently we have not had to think about disciplining our son in this way. More often than not, unwanted behaviour could not be stopped via the usual methods you might use with a child. Explaining consequences or the effect of bad behaviour was meaningless to my son. There have been a couple of occasions when bad behaviour at school has led to a ‘talking to’ from teacher. This is pointless, I’ve found. Instead, we sort of danced round his behaviours and outbursts, treading carefully and learning avoidance strategies. Prevention rather than intervention, as the books say. This might read as a rather soft approach, unless you’ve been there yourself, and then you’ll know what I mean. Now though, as challenging behaviour becomes more conscious and knowing, we find ourselves having to deal with him more, and it’s difficult.
One of the most difficult questions to answer is, ‘where does the autism end and naughtiness begin?’ At what point does my child’s behaviour stop being explained by his ‘condition’ and become just good, old-fashioned bad behaviour? These questions were addressed in a recent article in Autism West Midland’s publication ‘Autism matters’. It’s full of good advice and well worth a read. One of the most portentous pieces of advice I ever received came from Autism Outreach, who said, “treat him like a normal child or you’ll have a teenage monster on your hands.”
I know plenty of teenage monsters, working as I do in a secondary school. You don’t need a neurological condition to be a disruptive, uncooperative pain in the neck. Of the eight or so ‘spectrum’ students I encounter on a daily basis, most are anything but this. One child with aspergers does stand out as being particularly ‘difficult’ though. Although generally he is a child I work well with, I’ve been on the receiving end of his inappropriate behaviour on more than one occasion. I’ve often thought about this boy, and the extent to which his behaviour is informed by his aspergers. He’s widely known throughout the staff room as what, in the profession, we call an “arse”. Opinions differ on how many allowances to make for him. The over-riding policy is that, as a mainstream student, he must live by the expectations and code of conduct that everyone else lives by. If you swear at a teacher, you’re out, regardless of what your I.E.P says. Consequently, he’s spent a great deal of time in the ‘sin bin’ and has been suspended from school a number of times. But surely this is massively intolerant and deeply ignorant of the child’s additional needs? Where’s the reasonable adjustment? The teaching assistants who work with him seem to understand this (and him) better than most, but consequently he is more abusive and generally rude to them in a way he isn’t to teaching staff. What does this tell you about him? I think, on balance, the policy of treating him ‘normally’ is right, but at the same time, his inappropriate comments and backchat to staff come from a different place than a neurotypically naughty child.
The truth is that, when I think about this boy, I’m really thinking about my own son at that age. How tolerant will a secondary school be of my boy, should he remain in mainstream education? More to the point, how tolerant will his primary school continue to be?
These are all worries for another day, because today I’m celebrating progress. His brother got a thump earlier (a disagreement over whether Yoda or Darth Maul is the toughest). I ought to be cross, and I let them think I was, but actually I’m thinking, “My boys are fighting! How normal is that!” B’s tantrums have always been internalised- all about him. Now though, he’s increasingly aware of other people’s roles in his life and how his behaviour might affect them.
This is bad news if you’re his brother (or the TV screen), but for us, it is a very welcome sign of B becoming better acquainted with the world outside his little shell. For all the difficulties of life with an autistic son, I find more and more reason to be optimistic. I did not think I would be writing that a year ago.