At eight years old, our autistic son is quite a gentleman. But, before he learned to open doors for the elderly and say please and thank you with regularity, he had “unacceptable behavior.” Or rather, he had unexpected behavior for his age and strapping-big size.
Autistic children progress on a unique timeline and thrive on patience and support. Liev and I would like to encourage all caretakers of little autistics to have faith in the potential of their wards.
On Saturday, our respite provider, Miss D, took her daughter and Liev to a trendy indoor playground. Because their slides and climbing are enormous and intricate, the kids love them. One slide fascinates Liev–the Coal Chute. Long, lofty, and pitch black, it was the perfect challenge for an energized eight-year-old. It was his first stop.
A self-appointed guardian laid claim to the slide. She shouted, “No boys allowed!” Sensitive to exclusion, Liev said, “That is sexist. Anyone can go down the slide” (social justice lessons began at birth). Stepping by her, Liev was surprised when she spun and pushed him, hard. Liev retreated and found Miss D.
Miss D praised him for following their bully script: ignore a bully but get an adult if they put their hands on you. She acknowledged the self-control it took for Liev to walk away. Physical confrontations are distressing for any child, and doubly so for an autistic one.
“What should you do next?” Miss D asked him. “I will play in a different place to avoid the bully girl,” Liev replied.
The girl’s mother, overhearing Liev and Miss D, sprung up and collected her daughter. Since the mother took care of the situation, Miss D let it be.
Later, when Miss D, Liev, and Doryn climbed up a bumpy ramp, the same girl sprawled out near the top, not allowing anyone to pass. Liev whispered, “That’s the bully girl.” Miss D nicely asked her to move over so they could go by. The girl stared Miss D straight in the eye and said, “Nope.”
Miss D reminded her that this was a playground for everyone and that she needed to move to share. Miss D added, “Because the girl honked me off, I also told her I knew she pushed Liev, and if she put her hands on him again, I would tell the staff and they would ask her to leave.” The girl told Miss D she did not care.
When the girl’s nearby mother called to her, she demanded the girl come down NOW! Liev and Doryn regarded Miss D with concern. Since the mother was handling the situation, Miss D told the pair not to worry.
After they went down the slide, Liev fumed, “I’ll find that bully girl and tell her she should leave.” By now, Miss D realized the girl had more going on than bad manners.
She offered an observation to Liev: “Look how her mother is talking to her. Maybe she is not a bully. Maybe she is a girl learning how to play.”
Miss D asked Liev if he remembered when he first started coming to this playground. Liev would shout, “GO AWAY” every time another child came near him. He nodded. Miss D asked if he still yelled at others. “No, I learned to tolerate other kids, and if I can’t tolerate them, I know I can come to you and use my iPad.” Miss D reminded him how much time and work it took him to be at playgrounds without defending himself by shouting.
“Perhaps this girl is like you once were. Her mom is explaining which behaviors are okay and which are not. She is asking the girl what she could do instead of telling us to leave. See how she is helping her daughter understand her feelings? Instead of being a bully, the girl is learning how to play. She is learning how to tolerate other people like you once did.”
Liev thought about this. Tension left his body, and his eyes lit with insight. “So she isn’t a bully? She doesn’t know how to play so she’s telling us what to do? Yeah, that makes sense. We should let her stay with her adult so she can keep learning.”
Liev could not only consider another perspective, but he could also identify with the girl. This required self-reflection, self-acceptance, and the ability to put his emotions aside enough to empathize with this girl, when he was upset. Miss D said, “It was a beautiful thing to see.”
We are proud of Liev. He understood this girl needed support instead of blame. One of the greatest lessons I have learned as a parent is “bad” or “unexpected” behavior is a symptom of absent skills. Let this be a life lesson for Liev, as well. Everyone’s future will be better if we villainize less and help more.