I remember my fourth grade year of school, when I was about ten years old, as being one of my most difficult years in school. I had just moved schools from my local public elementary school to a magnet school a bit farther away, as we thought it would fit me better. This new school definitely was a lot better in some areas, especially for my first few years there, but it brought with it a different set of problems. My difficulty with transition and the new environment was apparently obvious in my ten-year-old self, and my teacher had no idea how to deal with me, and for this I don’t think she liked me very much.
So, my fourth grade year we took a field trip to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which is essentially a big open piece of land reserved for the native wildlife. The Refuge is most famous for its herd of American Bison, some of the purest in the nation. Going on this field trip, little ten-year-old me was super excited about seeing these animals. Bison amazed me, as they’re essentially the last of the ice age megafauna that once roamed North America. And despite living in the “natural range” of these animals, I had never seen one in person at that point.
When I get excited, I get very antsy and bouncy. As I’m autistic, I also don’t really process the whole concept of “personal space” very well, and my voice is often louder than what others would deem appropriate, especially when I’m excited. And obviously there’s my differences, often quite awkward differences, in body language. All this comes together to make for a bad situation in this story…
So, we get off the bus, and we get into our groups set up for the field trips. As I already stated, I was rather excited about this particular field trip. Apparently, while enthusiastically trying to talk to someone, I got to close to them, and “got in their face.” The details are a bit fuzzy, but essentially my teacher didn’t think this “behavior” was appropriate, and not wanting to “deal” with it, she put me back on the bus and called my parents to come pick me up. I did not possess the communicative abilities to try and explain, and even if I did this teacher would not have listened, I guarantee it. I did not see the bison that day. It was bad. She even tried to ban me from going on any future field trips, but luckily the other fourth grade teacher came to the rescue for me at our next trip (and I was fine, by the way). My teacher had decided that the best way to “stop” this behavior was to punish me. She was thinking “how can I get Quincy to stop getting in people’s faces and talking too loud” and determined the best way to “teach me a lesson” was to send me home.
This isn’t the first time someone has misread my body language this way, it actually happens all the time. But for some reason, this one sticks out the most to me. I have all kinds of stories similar to this from my fourth grade year. This teacher had decided that I was a problem student, and therefore she made no attempts to actually try to understand me, rather she was intent on stopping my “behavior.”
I am reminded of this whenever I see people on the internet asking questions about how they can get their autistic child/student to do this or that, to change this or that, to try this or that. Almost every time, the question starts with “how.” However, from experience, I think that all of these people are asking the wrong question.
In reference to an autistic person, the first question should never be “How can I get this behavior to change?” Rather, your first question should be “Why is he/she behaving this way?”
Your first question should never start with the word “how.” Too many people start by asking how they can change a “behavior,” but if you truly want to understand and effectively work with autistic people, this is the last question you should ask if you ask it at all.
Let me explain why this is the case with an example. A few weeks ago, I came across a discussion in which (presumably) a teacher was asking how she could get an autistic student to stop putting pencils in his ears. Here, she has asked the wrong question. If she would have instead stopped and asked “why is Little Johnny Autie putting pencils in his ears?” she could have come up with a few conclusions that could prove useful. Several autistic people answered with the same answer I would have given: he’s probably putting pencils in his ears because the classroom is too loud and they’re working as earplugs. I put pencils in my ears in this fashion in elementary school for exactly this reason. If this teacher would have stopped to consider the why, she could then effectively answer the how. There are multiple solutions here, such as letting the kid work in a quieter environment, providing him with earplugs/headphones, etc. By starting with asking “why?” the “how?” can be discerned and implemented in a way that is beneficial to everyone. By only focusing on the “how?” you run the risk of only making things worse, such as when my teacher jumped to a conclusion and answered the “how” question with simply sending me home.
Autism is not a random list of behaviors. There are reasons behind the things that we do, even if they aren’t obvious or understandable to neurotypical people. As such, it’s always wise to look for the why to address the how. This also plays into another important concept: that behavior is communication. This is especially true of autistic people, as we can have trouble communicating in typical ways, and as such “behavior” can play a role as an important communicator. As an example, an autistic child who bolts away from his mother upon entering the supermarket may simply be saying “no, I get sensory overload in here, I do not want to go in.” As such, in addition to your first “why” question, you should ask a “what” question: “What might be being communicated here?”
So, here’s the step-by-step:
- There’s a “behavior” you might find challenging. Do not make the mistake of jumping to the “how do I get this to change?”
- Ask why. “Why is he/she doing this?” and “What might be potentially communicated here?”
- Once you have the answers to these questions, then you can ask “What can I change to address this issue?” This is your answer to “How?”
- I would also advise that you seriously consider whether or not the “behavior” is really something that needs to change. For example, do you really need to stop your kid from rocking at the table? It’s not hurting anybody else, and it’s probably soothing to them, so what reason is there to be concerned about it. (Stimming is harmless and should not be categorized as “poor behavior.”)
“But how do I answer the why question?” you might be wondering. This can get tricky, but I’ll give you a few suggestions. First, you might try asking said autistic person. “Hey, Johnny, why are you putting pencils in your ears?” You might be surprised how much someone understands about themselves and how well they can communicate this. If this doesn’t work, because, say, they’re too young, don’t communicate well with you, or simply don’t know, your number one resource is other autistic people, especially autistic adults, because many of them know what’s going on because they did it too. There are Facebook groups and forums specifically for people to seek answers from autistic adults about their autistic children. I promise you that autistic adults will likely be able to help you a lot more than any of these self-proclaimed neurotypical “autism experts” will, because I’ll tell you from experience that they will very often be wrong, as they lack the experience and autistic mind that we have. (And, if you’ve read this far, I’d like to say thanks for listening to an autistic person. It means a lot.) As a final tip, personal experience and the Intense World Theory of Autism tells me that more often than not, your “why” is going to be sensory related.
I don’t claim to be some expert on autism parenting. I’m seventeen years old, I’ve never had kids, let alone autistic kids. What I do have, however, is personal experience. I wish that some people would have stopped and asked why about me. Instead of asking “How can we get Quincy to stop chewing on his shirt, because he comes home with his shirts soaking wet every day and puts holes in them?” (true story), I wish they would have asked “Why is Quincy chewing on his shirt?” so they could learn that chewing is a way I keep myself calm and focused. I wish they would have asked “Why is Quincy having meltdowns in the classroom?” so we could work to make the environment a bit more suitable for me.
My only hope is that someone might read this and take the advice I’m giving from experience so that the autistic child in their life might have it a little better than I did. Thanks for reading this lengthier-than-usual post, I truly appreciate it.