We like to talk about not judging people by their outward appearance or how they comport themselves. Unfortunately that is not the reality. How you dress, talk, walk, interact and take care of your hygiene has a huge effect on how you are related to by society. Fair? Not so much. But it is something we need to stress to our children.
We try to teach our children appropriate behavior when it comes to social situations. We concentrate on interpersonal situations or how they are to behave in a classroom. But rarely do we actually think about the wider world until the unthinkable happens: a bad interaction with police or persons in authority or with peers. On day you get that phone call or email with school officials on the other end of the line, who come to you and complain about how others perceive your child and that their behavior.
We can talk about accommodations and we can talk about civil rights until we are "blue in the face," but in truth, if someone is uncomfortable around your child, there will never be friends, employment and a successful navigation of society. We can hold seminars and teach-ins about acceptance of those with mental health and development issues, but that doesn't mean your child doesn't have a task to do within themselves. At times, we do need to meet society half-way or even 3/4 way whether we like it or not.
So what do you do?
I think this is a difficult proposition only because part of our children's issues is not being able to see what others see when they are having a hard emotional time. It is difficult for our children to understand the effect that their behavior has on the people around them. It's not that they can't, or don't, understand society, or that they aren't interested in joining society. It is simply that they can't see "the forest for the trees." Their meltdowns are personal and how they are feeling at that one given moment in time. Their being overwhelmed is about how they are processing the sensory information before them. They are in that space and they cannot necessarily remove themselves from that tornado that is their mind. (And as I have said before this inability to see beyond themselves becomes more problematic as they age. A meltdown by a 10-year-old is taken alot differently than a meltdown by a 200 pound, 6 foot tall, 18-year-old male.)
Yes, once their "episode" is over, our children are capable of understanding what has happened. They realize, once they feel better, if they have been mean, cross or had been inappropriate. "I'm sorry," is something heartfelt. Apologies abound. They truly feel embarrassed when they have digressed in the presence of their peers and they truly feel shame.
But unfortunately if their actions have frightened someone, scared off a potential friend, or have lost them a job, sometimes there really is no going back. What is lost is lost. The question becomes how do you teach them to understand their feelings in the moment and to control themselves? How do you teach them that impressions are real and that they have consequences before these consequences are life effecting?
When the boys were young, the minute they would walk in the door from school there would be a meltdown. In school they were generally altogether. But the minute they were inside that front door all hell broke loose. "Comfort," I was told, "home is a safe place."At home they could let the frustration and anxiety they felt all day come out. But as they grew their world became wider, their expectations grew and waiting to come home to emit that anxiety and frustration is not easy. In fact, that "horse has left the barn along time ago" for us.
Getting your child to understand when he is going to have a meltdown, when he feels anxious or how he interacts with someone is an important skill to master. That is also not to say that every neurotypical has that skill down either. It is NOT an easy skill to develop.
The problem too becomes what to do if they really have no way of controlling themselves. When they are in the moment of frustration what can they do to self-help? What can they do when they feel the frustration starting? How can they learn to understand their own body's emotional signals when they don't even understand their own body's signals for thirst and hunger?
We have taught the boys to walk out of a room, class or environment when they start to feel overwhelmed. This is a typical self-help method. (Making sure that they leave the room before they exhibit any negative actions is important also, and part of a long process of education.) Trying to get them to understand that their "tone" in a conversation is essential to how their emotional state is perceived is important for social interactions at both school and work. Teaching them the appropriate way to horse-around (even though it seems that in a school setting typical male bonding is seen as anathema in the first place in today's world) and what to say as a "joke" in public is a good place to start, when teaching about community acceptance.
Now when this is all said and done, there is no guarantee that the persons they run into will not also have a negative attitude simply because they know your child has autism or a mental healthy issue. Unfortunately, due to ignorance, lack of education and sensationalized news stories, society continues to have terribly negative views about those with mental health and developmental issues. At times we do need to accept the fact that there is also just so much our children can do to accommodate the world-at-large as well.
We also need to understand that no matter how hard our children do try, there is always going to be that one person who is just a total dumbass towards your child. This person will, no matter what, never accept your child for who they are. They will never see beyond the disability or mental health issue. These people are so caught up in their own little world, that their narcissism prevents them from being a viable member of society on any level and quite frankly what they think is not something your child or you should worry about. They read into your child's actions intentions that were never there, and they make your child's issues all about themselves. Honestly, its better to find out who these persons are and teach your child to stay far away from them. You can't please everyone and honestly it's not even worth trying.
As I have always told the boys...wherever you go in life there is always going to be one asshole. The trick in life is to NOT be the asshole. That is basically the lesson of teaching about impressions in a nutshell.
In the meantime, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While many of our children with autism have comorbid mental health issues, autism is in fact still listed as a mental health concern as well. There is no reason that even though Autism Awareness Month is over, that we should stop trying to educate society to accept our children for who they really are. Maybe one day there will be more give and take with society. Maybe one day the partnership will actually be 50-50. But until that time we work, we teach and we hope that our children are accepted, understood and welcomed into the world inwhich they live.
Mental Health Awareness: Wanted Compassion and Understanding