My son, Ricochet, is a very sensitive individual. He gets very emotional very easily. For years, he cried over just about everything. When he was picked on, he cried. The crying in those situations lead to more bullying, and even more tears. He was often told to “act his age,” or “quit acting like a baby.” Even with the added autism diagnosis about nine months ago, people still felt this behavior wasn’t age-appropriate.
We’ve been working long and hard on how to interpret the actions of his peers. With poor nonverbal communication skills and a very literal interpretation, it has been an uphill battle, with no end in sight. He is constantly upset by the words and actions of his peers, even when they’re really showing camaraderie, because he just can’t see it.
Because he is so intelligent, he is mimicking the behavior of others more and more to try to fit in. This is a very common strategy for individuals with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s. They’re smart enough to learn what is expected socially and mimic it. It’s a good thing… at least in most situations.
Taking a Stand
Where this strategy disappoints is in learning and parroting the unacceptable actions of one’s peers. Unfortunately, Ricochet has taken to giving other kids the finger (you know, flipping them off, giving them the bird…) when they make him mad. He’s never seen me use my middle finger as a statement of disgust, and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t seen his dad do it either. However, he sees it many times a day in the halls of his school, the hard-knocks playground where he learns social behaviors to adopt and embrace.
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Last week I got a call from the vice-principal at Ricochet’s middle school. She let me know that he was going to spend the following day in In-School Suspension (ISS) because he flipped the bird at another boy in the hallway. Well, she said it was because he was asked to confess to the indiscretion and he didn’t. I wasn’t happy about the ISS — he had missed many days of school the prior couple weeks and now he was going to miss all his classes another day and get even further behind. It made no sense to me and I wasn’t hesitant about voicing my opinion on the matter. Nonetheless, it was the punishment that was implemented.
Since the unacceptable hand gesture was provoked, and Ricochet was really set up to fail when called into the office and asked to confess, we didn’t give additional punishment at home. Truthfully, we were elated that he was finally standing up for himself. Granted, his method was inappropriate, but at least he wasn’t running through the halls of 12-14 year-old boys and girls crying like a toddler. Frankly, I was grateful. He had turned the corner. Allowing others to pick on him was no longer the status quo.
Now, it seems, giving the finger is the new status quo though.
When he fell in the hallway yesterday and a friend stood over him laughing, that middle finger popped right up like a jack-in-the-box again. Right in front of one of his teachers. He didn’t get ISS this time, because he wasn’t set up to deflect, but he did get silent lunch alone for two days and he was forced to call me and tell me what happened.
My response? “I’m sorry that happened to you, Buddy. We have to keep working on learning more appropriate ways to show others you’re mad at them and that you’re not going to accept them being mean to you.”
His response was fantastic. “I know Momma. I know. I love you.”
When I was gentle and calm in my response, it was kind of like I was giving the finger to the status quo of the educational establishment. His teacher expected me to read Ricochet the riot act, but I knew that wasn’t what my son needed. My son needed a reminder that his reflex response was inappropriate and a commitment to help him change the behavior. My son needed to know I’m in his corner.
I support him standing up for himself. And I support him no matter what. Take that neurotypical status quo!