Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Autism, Life Lessons, and Societal Interpretation

Now there's a heckuva title, right? Well, as it turns out, this lesson just hit home for us. My dear 13 year old son is dealing with a life lesson on being caught stealing (or at least looking like he was stealing).

First let me explain something. My son has two therapists who work with him and other kids at his school. It's very helpful and he is getting more and more independent every month. One of the incentives the kids get for doing well and being respectful is a small piece of candy. Hershey's kisses or other single wrapped items are usually what is given. Please spare me any nastiness over giving food as rewards as it is only one of many incentives and the system has been very successful for him.

Now for what happened:

Over the last week, candy has been disappearing from the reward box it is kept in. On Monday, my son was caught in the room with the box in his hands. He hadn't taken anything yet, but that really doesn't matter in a situation like this. He's not being held accountable for past missing candies because no one saw him take those. But he has lost the ability to gain that incentive for the next two weeks. The primary points he needed to understand were that he was in a room he didn't belong in and had the box in his hands.

His explanation, no surprise, would make a defense attorney blush. My son is mastering semantics when it comes to trying to squeak out of trouble or get out of doing something. So I realized that this was a prime opportunity to teach him about how his actions can be interpreted and how that can shape everything.

It wasn't his "intent" to steal anything. He thought he had earned the rewards and went and got the box down to "wait for" the person he would get the reward from. Never mind that he's not supposed to do that. He's supposed to go to his next class and if there's a reward for him, it will be dealt with. It always is. So I explained it to him like this:

If it looks like you are stealing something, then it will be assumed that you are stealing something.

Intent doesn't matter when it comes to what people see. Especially when you are somewhere you don't belong. But even if you do belong, how the viewing public interprets your actions can make or break your day. How many of our kids have crossed paths with the law merely because no one understood what was happening with their subject behavior? Arguably, the number is pretty high. There are media stories of autistic kids getting handcuffed or tazed because of their reactions or badly interpreted behavior.

I picked up a poker chip from my desk area (no I don't gamble) and showed it to my son.

"Imagine that this is a piece of candy." I said and then I put it in my pocket. "What does it look like I just did, if I do this before going to to the register?"

"Stealing." He didn't miss a beat. He understood right away and I saw the light come on. I explained how that understanding is very much the same as finding him in a room he wasn't supposed to be in, holding the box of candy in his hands.

Now, he doesn't like the consequences and some people may not think they are fair. I say they are much more appealing than learning this lesson with a trip to jail or marks on a permanent record. It's better to learn how the public reacts to various behaviors now than when they are in the middle of a crowd somewhere.

Before I go, I'll leave you with one tool that can help your child understand how important public behavior can be for certain things. That tool is Youtube. I show my son videos, ask him what he thinks of what people are doing, and we discuss it. Don't be afraid to discuss it with your kids. You may save them more than just embarrassment.

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