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Why Johnny Can’t Be Good

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Why Johnny Can’t Be Good
By Ellen Notbohm
Autism Asperger’s Digest  September/October 2013


Holiday traditions and activities can create bafflement for concrete-thinking children with autism; in our family, none more so than hype-y, happy Valentine’s Day. Paper hearts and candy in every conceivable form blare the ubiquitous romantic request—or is it a demand?—Be my Valentine, or its more succinct version, Be mine. How, Bryce pondered one year when faced with the usual classroom party, was he supposed to do that? What do you have to do to be a Valentine? What if he didn’t want to be a Valentine? And Be mine, well, that was downright scary. How could he be someone else’s? Did he have any choice in the matter or was Be mine an order, a have-to?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously chewed over the question, “To be, or not to be?” Paul McCartney’s last musical advice before leaving The Beatles was “Let it be.” Contemporary pop music is replete with song titles like “I Will Be,” “Has to Be,” “Meant to Be,” “Just Be,” “May It Be.”

“I know he can’t be good all the time,” the exhausted mom of an eight-year-old with autism told me, with tears in her eyes. “But why can’t he do it for just a day? A morning? An hour?” As we talked, many reasons emerged. But the starting point was this: how is a concrete-thinking child to infer what we mean by “good” when it may be the most subjective word in the English language? It’s an adjective, a noun, an interjection, an adverb. Dictionary.com cites sixty-four—sixty-four!—definitions and sub-definitions. “Good” is a moving target that changes from venue to venue, relationship to relationship. It changes with the time of day and it changes as the child ages. Defining “good” so that our kids can practice and master “being good” in every increment of every situation is an intensive process that, alas, too many adults trust to osmosis, to inferential skills our kids haven’t been taught, to inductive reasoning patterns not present in the thinking architecture of autism.

Even when we define “good,” we often couch it in negative terms. The weary mother’s definition of being good translated into don’t hit your brother, don’t throw things, don’t yell. We might think her list short and reasonable, but any demand that requires the child learn and master more than one thing at a time is a list too long. Small, incremental successes will naturally build upon one another, but multiple simultaneous expectations all but guarantee failure. Consider further: in order to be good, a child must feel good. In defining the “good” we want from them, do we acknowledge and validate the emotions, motivations and triggers behind a child’s behavior? Do we teach her the self-regulation strategies to deal with them, providing time and opportunity for her to practice those skills in a supportive, nonjudgmental way? Telling a child what not to do (don’t hit your brother) doesn’t tell her what to do. Even when phrased in active terms—how often have we said “keep your hands to yourself” or “button your lip,” idiomatic phrases that confuse the concrete-thinking child with autism—it doesn’t address the anger, frustration or fear behind the child’s thumping her brother. Learning to “be good” doesn’t mean she never gets to be angry, exuberant, frustrated or super-energetic. It means teaching her acceptable outlets for all her normal human feelings.

We would never tell a child to be a doctor, be a concert pianist, be a welder or a golfer or a reader without the understanding that a long period of explicit instruction and practice (which by definition includes making mistakes) precede the becoming of those things. When the U.S. Army adopted the slogan “Be all you can be” in 1980, the implication was that the Army would train the recruit to be all that he or she could be, not that the recruit would achieve it upon enlistment. When “be” is the embodiment of attributes as abstract and culture-defined as goodness, courtesy, courage or patience, it’s our job to break down these traits, shape their relevance to the child with autism and teach in concrete terms how to achieve the goals we set. We must define not only the actions necessary but also the steps in social thinking that underlie the actions (see “Being Social Begins with Thinking Social”). And we must hold ourselves accountable for the examples we set.

Our exhausted mother at the beginning of this piece felt better when we broke down her “why can’t he be good?” into actionable increments: Set one goal at a time, prioritized starting with behavior that is dangerous and requires immediate attention, descending to behavior that is annoying but of no real consequence. Begin with, and reward, success in small increments of time (a half hour, not a whole morning), gradually increasing. Provide visual prompts for reference, reminder, warning. Create Social Stories(TM) for specific behaviors. Don’t hold him to a different standard of behavior than his siblings.

The same approach applies to the classroom. This true tale, an excerpt from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, skewers home the point:

I’ll never forget a story I heard years ago about a whirling dervish of a girl with ADHD, nine years old. Her teacher proposed a deal, a reward  for meeting a behavioral goal. If the girl could “be good” for three weeks, the teacher would buy her an ice cream cone. The girl reported to her therapist: “Is she kidding? I can’t ‘be good’ for three hours, let alone three weeks. And besides, I don’t like ice cream.”

The goal: unrealistic, out of reach.

Guidance offered to help in accomplishing the goal: none.

The reward: irrelevant, and nowhere near equal in value to the effort required.

Here’s a scenario more constructive times six: Teacher and student (1) meet one-on-one and (2) discuss and agree to (3) a specific, (4) short-range goal (5) that is achievable and (6) has a meaningful motivator as a reward. For instance, the student will work toward remaining in her seat or other designated spot during silent reading time, which is the twenty minutes following lunch recess (short period of time following a physical-release outlet offers best chance of success). She’ll start with five-minute increments and work up from there. Success will earn her a token toward computer time, a movie pass or other mutually-agreed-upon end result attractive to her.

Why can’t he be good? He can, but not until we take a dose of our own medicine: be patient. As is so often the case, our answers might be found in the mirror. George Gershwin gave us the turn-the-tables perspective in his famous song lyric: “I am so awf’ly misunderstood. So lady, be good to me.”

Ellen Notbohm is the author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and three other award-winning books on autism. Visit her at www.ellennotbohm.com and find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ellennotbohm. Please contact the author for permission to use in any way, including posting on the Internet.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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  1. Fiona Thornely says:

    I am learning so much from you about how to understand and help my son, Tommy, with ASD and ADHD.

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