Thursday, February 9, 2012

Autism Awareness Month: Discipline

There's a saying in the Autism Community that goes like this, "When you meet one child with Autism, you've met one child with Autism." Each child with Autism is as different from each other child with Autism as any child is different from any other. Autism is a weird thing. Nobody really can define it more than the amorphous "deficits in social interaction and communication" which could mean a whole lot of things.

And does, actually.

That said, I am still introducing you to my son with Autism and our family's various strategies for dealing with it. You won't be any closer to understanding any other child or family working under this burden, but my son and my family have made me look at certain aspects of life and parenting in such a way that I sometimes kick out a gem or two.

There's nothing quite like struggling with an issue to give you new insights on it, is all I'm saying here.

That's all I'm saying all month, too. I'm no expert on Autism, but I am an expert on my son with Autism. And figuring out what worked with him sometimes helps me figure out how we all work, you know?

Discipline: Why Bother?

When my son was three, we started to see the beginnings of outright naughtiness and decided we'd better begin addressing them. Now, we're not talking about behaviors like the sensory stuff of unrolling the entire roll of toilet paper because he liked to see things spin, or the innocent misbehavior of an immature child like eating the entire contents of the jelly jar left on the counter. What we were beginning to see were the birth pangs of the more dubious of social skills: revenge and orneriness.

Because he wouldn't complain, tattling being a language skill he couldn't muster at that age beyond howling in outrage, his siblings sometimes took self-centered and childish advantage of the situation, akin to Enron and their investors. We had to be smart enough to figure out any given situation via discussions among devious preschoolers, a toddler or two, and one outraged little fella with social deficits. I have to admit that sometimes they outsmarted us adults and Simon literally learned to take matters into his own hands--by pinching. His memory proved better than the average preschooler. He'd pinch at seemingly random intervals, but his justification was sometimes days old. (We knew this by various means and subtleties too intricate to express in this post.)

Other times, he'd act up for no good reason. He's human, after all, not angelic, and he occasionally asserts his prerogative to be a little stinker. (If you don't think this is perfectly human, you don't know enough humans, please allow me to introduce myself.) I guess you could chalk up some of this kind of behavior to "testing his boundaries," which is a more noble way of labeling orneriness, but this is my blog and I like the word stinker better. It makes my boy giggle.

 Whatever you want to call it, these new behaviors were greeted with mixed emotions. We were guiltily thrilled to acknowledge that another stage in social development had been reached while at the same time plotting feverishly to stop it. Prior to this development he'd whine or cry and then simply extricate himself from stressful situations. Now he was showing some spunk that could both ward off trouble and bring it on. Something had to be done.

At first we were stymied by the thought, "What if he doesn't understand?" It can be hard to communicate with a person with communication deficits. What if we couldn't get him to buy into the disciplining process? As silly as this sounds, we consulted a discipline expert: this guy. We read his discipline books and then we stalked sought him out at a conference. He put it into terms that permanently solved that:

"Do you expect your dog to obey you?"

My husband and I nodded blankly.

"Do you need your dog to understand why you don't want him on the couch or do you just insist he stay off?"

I think I blinked a few times.

"You don't need understanding or buy in. Just set the rules, set age appropriate consequences and rewards, and teach your son how people behave."

Then he moved in his seat, pointed at us both, and lowered his voice. Everything about him said, Listen up! "Don't handicap him by allowing him to be a brat. He has enough of a handicap to deal with already. Teach him!"

It was the first time we'd ever considered that growing up to be an undisciplined person was an additional handicap we could inflict upon our son! Now what were we going to do!

Dr. Ray Guarendi
Psychologist, Author, Speaker,
and Father of 10
Wait...did you just call my kid
a dog?!

Next week...what we did!

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