When Alex first began behavioral therapy, the primary goal was to teach him to deal with his anxiety and aggression. However, as he has learned to manage these issues, his behavioral therapist has shifted the focus to helping him improve his social skills, a common difficulty for people with autism. To teach him appropriate ways to interact with others, we practice at home by discussing how he should behave and by using social stories so that he knows what he should and should not do. Moreover, we give him opportunities to practice what he’s learned by taking him to public places, such as restaurants, stores, and concerts. During these outings, we have been pleased that Alex demonstrates that he has learned well the lessons his social stories have taught. On the other hand, I have been astounded by the rudeness of some of the people we encounter out in public. While my temptation has been to say, “My son has autism, what’s your excuse?” I realize that they have not had the benefit of therapy that has taught him to interact appropriately. Consequently, I’d like to share some of the social skills lessons for those who could benefit from what Alex’s behavioral therapist calls “Making Good Choices.”
USE YOUR CALM DOWN SKILLS
Because Alex can become anxious and overwhelmed in certain situations, he needed to learn techniques to help calm him so that he doesn’t have meltdowns. He can listen to music, do deep breathing exercises, and/or count to ten in various languages (English, Spanish, French, German, and Turkish) to help him settle down. Although he may need to be reminded about these techniques when he’s upset, Alex can use them effectively to manage his anxiety. Last week, we encountered someone who could also benefit from these calm down skills when we were going with Alex’s behavioral therapist, Jennifer, for our weekly outing to practice social skills. As we approached the fast food restaurant where we were headed, I saw a fire truck and ambulance with flashing lights blocking our path and knew we would have to take an alternate route. Apparently, my action angered another driver who didn’t see why I had to turn, and I could tell from his facial expressions and from my limited lip reading skills that he wasn’t happy with me. To make sure I knew he was upset, he gave me the middle finger gesture. As Jennifer observed, “He wasn’t very friendly, was he?” While I put calm down skills to use so that I didn’t return any hostility, I realized that rude man should have been using his fingers to count instead of to insult me. Certainly, he needed some calm down skills so that he could make better choices.
USE YOUR MANNERS
We have worked with Alex to use polite phrases, such as, “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” and “Excuse me,” and he is still mastering saying them at the appropriate times and saying them loudly enough to be heard. However, I’ve noticed that many people who cannot use autism as an excuse also seem to have not mastered these skills. For example, we have practiced with Alex the scenario of saying “Thank you” when someone holds a door open for him, but I have found that some people seem to forget their manners when I’ve held doors open for them and say nothing to me. In addition, we’ve taught Alex to get out of people’s way when we’re in grocery store aisles or waiting in line, but I’m amazed by the people who stroll along, seemingly oblivious or even not caring that they are in someone else’s way. Also, Alex has learned by playing board games to wait his turn and to be ready when it is his turn so that he doesn’t make others wait. Sadly, some adults apparently have not learned this courtesy lesson, as I discovered in Panera Bread the other night when a couple held up the entire line, taking their sweet time to decide what they wanted and then taking unnecessary time to pay for their food, never once apologizing for their rude actions. Without a doubt, these types of inconsiderate people need to use their manners.
While Alex still struggles with making eye contact, a common issue found in people with autism, at times he finds something or someone interesting enough that causes him to cast a lingering look. Often, he may find someone’s voice engaging, or he may find children’s behavior amusing, and he watches them in delight. However, we remind him that staring is not polite. Apparently, not all parents teach their children this lesson. The other day, Alex, Jennifer, and I were at Burger King for our Friday social skills outing, and Alex had decided that he wanted to order his food himself. As he struggled a bit to order, the cashier was very sweet and patient with him, but I noticed two teenage girls staring at him and smirking. While my motherly protective instinctive reactions ranged from wanting to smack them to saying sarcastically, “Take a picture, it lasts longer!” to wanting to explain that he has autism, I realized that nothing I could say or do would teach these mean girls a lesson. Fortunately, Alex was oblivious to their rude behavior because he was so busy trying to use his manners. Following his lead, I used my calm down skills and my manners, and I didn’t stare back at them. As much as their behavior was hurtful, I could also feel sorry for them because unlike Alex, they either had not had loving people teach them how to act appropriately, or they were not working as hard as he is at using social skills. Not only am I thankful that Alex is trying to make good choices, but also that he never seems to notice those around him who fail to make those good choices. Despite the obstacles autism has put before him, he keeps striving to become a better person, and that good choice makes us proud.
“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” Galatians 6:9