Behavior Policing’s Effect on Autistic Children

Growing up, I might not have had an autism diagnosis, but that does not mean that my parents were oblivious to the differences between my behavior and typical behavior. Sure, when I was very young, they made their mistakes. For instance, my mother thought that the fact that I would sit for hours, focused on my own thoughts, made me an “easy” child. In some ways it did, because that meant that she could leave me unattended and run downstairs to change the laundry without worrying that I’d wander off. To a nineteen year old with a toddler, I’m sure that that had to seem like a blessing at times.

Similarly, when I was two or three and I started to get obsessed with organizing and arranging things, that made my parents’ lives easier. After all, a child that can be kept busy sorting a pile of sticks from longest to shortest, then from thickest to thinnest, then from darkest to lightest is not a child who is likely to notice if you can’t afford to get him a new toy every time he wants one. He’s not as demanding.

Later, when I had problems that were demanding, such as forgetting that I was supposed to pray before meals because I was hungry and I could only focus on one thing at a time, that behavior was treated as a matter of choice and discipline. The same was true when we ran into situations where I would “ignore” adults who were trying to get my attention because I was busy talking to my friends or my cousins. In each of these situations, I wound up isolated, told to think about my actions, and then released when I assured my parents that I understood why I was being punished.

I learned quickly that what I needed to do was to convince them very quickly that I understood why I was being punished. Naturally, they would get suspicious and quiz me. “Oh, so what did you learn?” or “Then tell me what you did wrong” were common challenges. I would then parrot back to them whatever they had said when they first punished me. “I didn’t listen,” or “I should stop talking when an adult talks to me.”

There’s just one problem with this model for disciplining a child like me. I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t learning how to behave, I was learning how to apologize for my
behavior. If I kept talking when an adult wanted my attention, it was for one of two reasons. Either I didn’t hear the adult, or I regarded the adult as rude. In the first case, it was simply an issue of sensory input and focus. If I don’t hear you and then you punish me for not hearing you, then what I learn is that you punish me for things that are not my fault. If you teach me that it’s rude to interrupt people when they talk, and you teach me that the consequences for doing that are that I will be isolated and perhaps deprived of dinner or television privileges, then when you interrupt me, I naturally assume that what you’re doing is wrong, and I refuse to award it with my attention.

At least, I did. That was how my world worked. Black and white. Equal enforcement of the rules for everyone. When I was placed into a situation where no one had explained the shades of gray to me, then I assumed that other people were simply being allowed to behave badly, and that I alone was singled out for punishment. “Because I’m the adult” was not an answer, either. I was an intelligent enough child to know that adults were supposed to have better manners than children, and that led me to assume that when they broke their own rules, they were being horribly entitled and using their power over me to bully me.

Pretty quickly, and I mean by the age of seven or eight, I developed the impression that the adults in my life were capricious, inconsistent, and that they harbored a deep bias against me that led them to forgive the transgressions of most other people completely while holding me 100% accountable for every mistake I made. Naturally, this made me horribly afraid of making mistakes. In order to avoid that, I also avoided taking risks. If I knew that my parents wanted to talk to me when they finished cooking dinner or got off the phone, I would sit doing nothing until they got to me. If the teacher said that I was not supposed to doodle when I got my work done and I had nothing to read, I would sit and look at the wall. Making decisions was dangerous.

The answer to this problem, of course, is to focus less on providing negative reinforcement and more on explaining the reasoning behind a rule and/or teaching priorities. Discussing the differences between different kinds of interruption by classifying them into interruptions that take over conversation vs. interruptions that are status updates (like “we’re leaving now, say goodbye”) would have helped. These are conversations that most other people would not need, but I needed them. I couldn’t say that I needed them, because I was a child — I did not know what the things I was not intuitively grasping were.

Similarly, when I had meltdowns and then suddenly vomited forth an incoherent stream of word salad, I was often told something like “I’m not a mind reader, if you don’t tell me when something is bothering you, you can’t expect me to help you with it.” Like the discipline issue, this is a problem, because the things that would come out mid-meltdown were things that I lacked the language to adequately explain. If I had
had the language to air my grievances and to explain my feelings, I would not have lost my language and been reduced to screaming and pointedly ejaculating incoherent phrases in the first place.

This is not to blame my parents, though. Not entirely. As I pointed out earlier, they were incredibly, unbelievably young to be dealing with a child like me. Asperger’s was not a recognized condition yet, either. In fact, autism was a barely-discussed disorder in general. I was five or six before Rain Man even came out.

That doesn’t meant that their hands are clean, though. Not entirely. My obvious distress, behavior meltdowns, and social isolation should have triggered some kind of empathy, or at the very least concern. Something that would have at least indicated that there was a change of approach needed.

Ah, but there’s the rub. I learned too well. That’s the problem with being an extreme systemizer with a high IQ and a firm knack for inductive reasoning. I was able to construct elaborate systems, programs really, to run my behavior in different situations. When the parents are around, try to avoid talking so that you can fixate on any demands they make. When the teacher is explaining the lesson, do the homework so that you can not forget it and leave it at home, you can leave it in your desk here at school because it is already done. Pay attention to every rule equally, because you don’t know which ones are the important ones, and you can’t take a risk. Minimize your own goals in order to focus on anticipating the next problem and pushing it away, so that you never give them an excuse to punish you.

I’m told that this kind of behavior is a common coping mechanism for victims of abuse. That, in fact, it starts to become normal. You lose track of your own goals and focus on deferring punishment. This is the only way to deal with a seemingly random authority that controls your world, though. When you don’t know exactly what will trigger punishment and what will trigger mercy, you try to appease the authority, to make it complacent, so that it will be less likely to notice small transgressions. You focus on doing the things that you have been told to do, and you become paranoid about people who would innovate or people who would make suggestions that would alter your routine.

You also learn to loathe the authorities in question. There can be no love for random belligerence or for someone who believes that the rules only apply to others, and if that is what your understanding of authority figures has become, then there is no room in your head for the idea of a benevolent leader. When you are not subject to discipline in the sense of being put back in line when you step out of it, but instead you are punished for not having seen the line, then it is not hard to hate the person punishing you.

When this happens at a very young age, and when you are already prone to black-or-white reasoning, it does not take very many unreliable authority figures to lead you to believe that the problem is authority itself. When that happens, your teachers, the social workers at school, the police, your grandparents… all of them become part of the machinery arrayed against you. You become a refugee.

I’m not arguing that autistic children should be exempt from responsibility for their actions. When they understand a rule, or when they hurt other people in a selfish way, they can and should be disciplined. Punishment is a useful tool for learning empathy. I’m arguing, though, that two things need to happen. First, social graces should be taught and then re-taught if they are not learned. They should not be policed or enforced on fear of punishment. You don’t punish a kid who can’t shoot a free throw by making him run wind sprints — you make him practice the free throw. So why should you punish a kid who can’t learn manners by removing him from the presence of others and
sending him to his room or to a corner? Demonstration, discussion, demonstration, drill. Otherwise, you disconnect the correction from the cause, and you victimize instead of disciplining.

I’m not arguing from ignorance here, either. I know the rage that accompanies a sense of injustice, whether that injustice is real or only perceived. I have felt it become entrenched, and I have acted on it. It makes you think that everyone who offers feedback on your behavior is telling you that you are wrong, or that they don’t like you. It undermines your competence and your confidence, and it makes decisions harder to make. It gives you all of the selfish attributes of narcissism, but none of the superficial charm or ambition.

It kills you, slowly, and it leaves you in a world where you don’t know what is wrong. You just know that nothing is right.