I’ve come across several several blogs posts the last couple weeks about how autistic children are taught and forced to comply with the demands of adults, all having the conclusion that too much focus on doing what is expected is bad for the autistic person (short reason for that: abuse). One writer speaks of being forced to hug her molester lest she ‘hurt his feelings’, another of learning to suppress her pain until she is no longer aware of her own emotions. Both of them suffered because teaching them how to behave properly was more important to their caregivers than understanding why they were behaving in the ways they were to begin with. And several times between the various articles I read on the issue writers asked the question, “is this how we would teach a neurotypical child?”
The thing is, I’m not sure the answer is ‘no’.
I see this with my niece from time to time. If you tell her why she’s being punished and ask her if she understands, she will reply, “Yes.” If you ask her to repeat back to you what she did wrong, you will be met with silence. She has learned the answer expected of her, leaving me unsure whether or not she means it or if it’s a rote response. The prod is kinder, but she’s still learning the type of behaviour that is expected of her and how to comply with it, even if it lacks the harm that often comes with teaching an autistic child to ‘behave’. And really, knowing how and when to comply with the expectations of others is part of living in a society. It’s a skill we all need sometimes. We’ve had a person recently ignoring the DM for our Dungeons and Dragons game, the person telling him to “sit down, shut up and stop naming your character Robert E. Lee”. In this case, his lack of compliance made the game virtually impossible to run, and ignoring authority had negative consequences not only for him but the rest of us as well. Yet at the same time, sometimes a person is being ill-behaved because of some discomfort or harm, and understanding the cause of the behaviour is key to not causing more discomfort or harm.
It’s often said that we tend to give kids and people with developmental disabilities too little credit. This is true, but it doesn’t negate the possibility of given them too much credit as well. Another autistic adult commented on being thought to have higher communication abilities than ze really had, because ze enjoyed watching Discovery and had a large vocabulary, but there were also deficits in hir ability to understand in other areas. So hir parents and teachers treated hir as having greater understanding than was actually present based on the areas where ze had greater skills. When my niece says, “Yes,” it’s easy as an adult to hear, “Yes I understand what I did wrong.” But she’s young, and I can’t stop suspecting that maybe the answer she’s giving is not one of understanding the question, but one of knowing the desired answer. And if the truth is the latter, I wonder what she’s really learning from the experience.