Friday, January 16, 2009

Hey Shorty, Hey Fatty

[how to explain to my kiddo with an autism spectrum disorder when a comment on a physical attribute is just a comment and when it becomes an insult.. And as an extension, how to break negative response patterns]

So Salamander, while growing overall like a weed, is still rather short when compared to his classmates. And as Salamander is the product of two 'midgets' (I'm not too tall, and neither is dad), well, he'll probably never become 6 foot 2. And quite a few of the other kids in Salamander's class are products of GIANTS, so there you go.

But Salamander is at a tender age - any comment about your physical attributes (0h the fun we will have once he fully enters puberty and this whole 'all boys taking a shower after gym' thing starts in school...) can, on any given day, become a HUGE BIG FAT (pun intended.. please read on) insult.

There is another boy in Salamander's class with a similar complex of neurodevelopmental delays. Unfortunately for this guy (and my heart does break for him), he is so not getting the social nuances that play out between the average 5th grader. This guy is very much left out of a variety of social interactions within the class room, he truly is left 'on the side' in many many situations. And as I said, while my heart breaks for him, I do have some issues with the way this guy has been taught to go about getting his share of attention.

He WHINES (yes, capitalization is appropriate here), he COMPLAINS, he DEMANDS that the teachers intervene in every single situation ("I'm gonna tell the principal if you don't help me."). I can't stress enough that I understand how this guy feels (hey, it wasn't that long ago that Salamander was left on the side looking in), I understand that the constant rejection must be unbearable. However, I can never accept or condone (heck, I don't accept it from my two, and they KNOW it) demanding attention by going the 'negative' route'.

I also realize that it is probably NOT a conscious behavior on the part of this guy - it's a learned and re-enforced behavior.

This guy is big, really really BIG. Early puberty and all that; and the Standard American Diet. I think the kiddo outweighs ME with at least 15 lbs (and I am not exactly petite).

This kiddo, I'll call him T, has fallen into this 'trading insults' pattern with Salamander. T calls Salamander "Hey Shorty." whenever they cross paths (which is all the time as they share a class room and many of the same pull out services). And right now, being called "Shortly" just isn't sitting so well with Salamander. So Salamander, as his feelings are being hurt by being called "Short", replies in kind with "Hey Fatty.". Of course T then runs of to the school staff and complains that Salamander is being mean to him and calling him names (point granted).

Salamander replies with a 'Well, he started it. He called me Shorty." (and in his wonderfully straight laced, rather black and white Asperger's mind, there is NO 'severity of insult' scale. Shorty and Fatty are insults. Period.).

School staff of course then tells Salamander that being called Shorty and calling somebody Fatty in return are two completely different things, and that Salamander better not ever use that insult again or he'll be punished. Salamander of course gets P.O'd. And T has accomplished his mission, which is 'get attention from the staff, and get attention from Salamander." Yes, we all realize that it is NEGATIVE attention. I don't think T understands the difference.

So here I am, having to explain to Salamander why it is that HE got into trouble for name calling while another person started it, and WHY there is a difference between "Shorty" and "Fatty".

I acknowledged to Salamander that really, when your feelings are getting hurt, it doesn't matter what the other person said. Just because your feelings got hurt by being called something, it becomes an insult. For example (and Salamander did have to laugh when I said this), there may be days that Salamander's feelings get hurt by being called "Freckle Face." While on other days, especially if that comment is being made by a cute girl, it's not an insult at all!! However, regardless of whether or not a cute girl says it, being called an "Idiot" is always hurtful.

So whether or not a comment is an insult all depends on the receiving party's feelings and perceptions, as well as on society's definitions. While Salamander gets the 'how it makes you feel' part, the societal piece is harder to grasp, as it all seems very arbitrary to him (point granted). I agreed with him that what society at large thinks is hurtful or not is ever changing and not very logical, but that if you want to get along and not constantly get into trouble, you are going to have to learn to follow "those silly rules." And as Salamander very much wants to get along and be liked, he is putting enormous effort in learning the rules and applying them appropriately.

I explained to Salamander that, from most peoples' perspective, being called "Shorty" is just a silly joke, a 'no big deal, get over it' kind of thing (regardless of whether or not it's a big deal to the person on the receiving end of the comment). For the teachers, having a student be called a "Shorty" is not something that lands in the 'must be addressed by adults' category. It falls in the 'teach kids to ignore this, to toughen up a bit' category. However, having student be called a "Fatty" does fall into the 'must be addressed by adults as it IS an insult' category. Hence, whoever says "Fatty" gets into trouble, regardless of what preceded the Fatty comment.

Salamander thought this was all grossly unfair (and I agree). And he said: "Well, I'm going to continue to call him "Fatty" when he calls me "Shorty", and I know I will continue to get into trouble and I don't care, because it is just not fair."

"OK, kiddo, take a breath. So what do you want to accomplish here? Do you want for T to stop calling you Shorty? Or do you want to continue to get into trouble."

"I want for T to stop calling me Shorty. But I explained to him many times that I don't like to be called Shorty but he says that the teachers say it's no big deal and that's why he can keep calling me Shorty. And I HATE that."

"I completely get how upset you are. So let's think about what we can do to stop him calling you Shorty. Is he calling you Shorty all the time, or is he doing this in certain situations."

"He's doing it when he's calling my name and I won't respond because I am busy with something."

[Ah, as suspected, T wants Salamander's attention. T can't get Salamander's attention. So T goes down the path of what has worked in the past to get Salamander's attention. Sure, the result is negative attention, but it IS attention]

"OK. Thanks for explaining that. So I don't think that T is trying to hurt your feelings by calling you Shorty, he's trying to get your attention. And he's learned from the 18 million times that he and you have gotten into this situation before, that calling you Shorty gets your attention."

"But it's mean, mommy. So because he's mean, I am mean back and call him Fatty"

[tune of 'And the wheels on the bus go round and round' starts playing in my head]

"Peanut, we need to find a different way to still give T the attention he wants from you, without getting into this whole Fatty, running to the teachers, Salamander gets in trouble thing."

[I'm thinking, how do I explain to him the concept of "Insanity personified is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." But that is still too beyond Salamander at this point]

"So how about the next time he tries to get your attention and calls you Shorty, you take 3 very long deep breaths and say to him "Hey black hair.", or "Hey brown eyes,." or "Hey orange shirt".

Salamander's eyes get as big as saucers and a little giggle escaped. "That's totally silly, mom"

"Yes it is. And it also a response that T doesn't expect. So by responding that way instead of launching into your usual response, you are going to force T to think about what to do next. And two things might happen. He may burst out laughing and call you 'blue eyes' in return. And you'll call him "Green pants" and you'll both end up with the giggles and that's OK. Or he goes to complain to the teachers that you just called him "black hair". And for the teachers being called "black hair" does not fall into the "must be addressed by an adult because it's an insult' category. Now the teachers will think "Well, T, you need to learn to deal with these things on your own. And hey, what did YOU call Salamander to be called Black Hair in return. Oh, you called him Shorty, well, that's not very nice."

And you can see the wheels in Salamander's head starting to turn. And voila, this incredible smile blooms on his face, followed by an "Oh!!!".

"Now peanut, this is something that you are going to have to practice. As your instinct is going to be to call him Fatty. But try very hard not to do that. Keep reminding yourself 'three deep breaths and call him black hair/brown eyes/orange shirt.' And I am pretty sure that soon T won't be calling you Shorty anymore."

"OK. This could be fun, mom. I will try this. But what about when he calls me by my middle name?"

[Salamander has an unusual middle name - it's a name that has carried over from generation to generation on his father's side of the family to the first son of each generation. I know, I know.. it's kinda stoogy, but you can't escape or do away with all traditions.. Now Salamander's dad happens to have this unusual name as his FIRST name.]

"OK, sweetie. Next time T does that, you stop what you are doing. You start looking all around you. You look confused. And you say to T "My dad is here?? You just called my dad's name..."

"Oh mom, that's just too funny [fit of giggles]. T won't know what to say."

"Exactly. What I am trying to show you is that you can 'win' in these kind of silly situations. By not even entering a fight. Just by saying something unexpected..."

Now to clarify, T and Salamander are friends, they are GOOD friends, they have been friends since Kindergarten and they really clung to each other for survival during 2nd through 4th grade. But what is putting serious strain on this relationship is that Salamander has matured in his social skills, he has made many more friends, he is part of the '5th grade crew' now. But that is not happening to that extend for T. And while Salamander understands that this must be hard for T, and he wants to stay T's friend and help him, he also feels held back and smothered...

Salamander and I have talked about writing a social stories type letter to T to explain some of what is happening. I think we'll work on that this weekend...

Growing up is hard.
Growing up with an autism spectrum disorder + other 'baggage' is triple hard.

Growing up while recovering from an autism spectrum disorder + other 'baggage', and trying to slowly catch up to the rest of your NT peers (who've had years of practice at this stuff) and not drive yourself bonkers in the process?
Almost Mission Impossible.

But I know that Salamander is up for the challenge. And I'll help him anyway I can...

[and as you may guessed from this conversation and others, I am NOT a big believer in the 'Well, it's OK. Just ignore it. It'll stop. It'll get better. It's not big deal." type of response.
First, it completely and utterly invalidates the child's feelings that what they are experiencing is a BIG deal for them (kiss of death to self esteem - especially if it's already fragile).
Second, it teaches the child NOTHING. Well, actually it DOES teach the child something. That what they are feeling, that THEY, don't matter...]


At 4:53 AM, January 18, 2009 , Anonymous silk said...

And that is why I home educate. I cannot stand the thought of my aspie getting tortured by those who discover how sensitive he is, even his friends. And why do teachers get to decide that Shorty isn't an insult, but Fatty is? It would piss me off. Your creative solution would have never occurred to me. And the puberty thing coming up, I don't even want to think about it. Hormonal changes and communal showers are often traumatizing for N.T. kids well into adulthood, I would insist on lack of communal showers in my son's IEP or 504 in the same way that he gets one on one testing for state standards instead of the sensory overload of group testing. Of course he may not have either of those tools by then, but public school social policy sucks.


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