Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Social Skills School of Hard Knocks

photo credit-angela7dreams
creative commons license

Buddy Boy has some OT time at school, where he basically plays games with other kids, and he also goes once a week to a private class where a facilitator does much the same with a group of kids. Buddy Boy relates reasonably well with adults, but has never done especially well with other kids.

I've often pondered what were the reasons that Buddy Boy doesn't make friends, as well as the reasons that he is sometimes confrontational in encounters. It's not like he doesn't want friends. He laments at times that he doesn't have friends and isn't invited for sleepovers. From observing him at the park, I can say that he doesn't initiate encounters much with other kids, and doesn't respond much if other kids approach him. When I've tried making suggestions to him at the park, he says he doesn't want to play with the other kids, or that he doesn't want to do what they are doing.

I think that the efforts that the OT at school and the social skills class we take him to outside of school are worthwhile, but I also don't think that they are all of the solution. It's one thing to relate to other kids in highly controlled situations, and it's quite another in spontaneous encounters. So I actively supplement Buddy Boy's social skills education by taking him to parks during the summer, and fast food establishments with play areas all year long.

Paying for a 'Happy Meal' is less expensive than what we pay for each social skills class, and I think it's at least as productive. I talk to Buddy Boy ahead of time, reminding him of some of the rules (sharing, not being aggressive, taking turns) and then try to hang back somewhat and see what happens. If I sense a need I'll intervene, but mostly try to let him figure things out on his own. Buddy Boy, of course, thinks that it's all his idea to go to these places, as he's eating out and getting to go play. Which is just fine with me.

This last weekend we went to one of several fast food establishments that has a play area. It's one of my favorites because it also has free wi-fi, so I can catch up on postings on the Autism Hub while I keep an eye on the kids.

Most of the time went fairly well. There was a fairly good size group of kids there, and both Buddy Boy and Sweet Pea seemed to be getting along all right, though most of their play was of the 'parallel play' variety. I don't mind this, as there are always plenty of opportunities when there are several kids around for negotiations between different kids (who gets a turn on the video game next, who's turn is it now on the slide, etc.).

I was just getting ready to have the kids get their shoes back on and get ready to leave when I saw a female adult on the far side of the play area talking to Buddy Boy. I quickly sauntered over to see what was up. You know the walk-not wanting to run over and make a scene, but knowing that something isn't right and wanting to get over there and fix it.

As I approached, I saw a girl of about 4 years old next to the woman crying. Uh oh. The woman informs me that Buddy Boy (who was almost twice the little girl's size) had called the girl a bad name, and had stomped on her foot. I apologized to the woman, asked if her daughter was all right, and proceeded to tell Buddy Boy that he had just forfeited the 'toy' that came in his Happy Meal. This of course started him crying, which in one way made the situation worse, but in another helped us out. The mom started feeling sorry for Buddy Boy, telling me he was trying to protect his sister (Sweet Pea) and that her daughter was all right. I apologized again, quickly got the kids together, and made a hasty retreat out the door. I purposely didn't use the "He's autistic" excuse because I didn't want to further the falsehood that all autistics are violent, and I also didn't want Buddy Boy to get the idea that being autistic was an excuse for bad behavior.

In piecing the incident together with the kids in the car, Sweet Pea indeed had asked Buddy Boy to protect her (why Sweet Pea needed protection from a kid that was a bit smaller than her was unclear). Buddy Boy hasn't had problems with physical aggression at school this year, but often gets reprimanded at home for aggressive actions with us and Sweet Pea. I figure that this girl was similar enough to Sweet Pea's size that he naturally fell into his habitual way of dealing with conflict with Sweet Pea.

I guess we won't be going back to this establishment for a month or two. Luckily I have a few others that are in our rotation.

Even though moments like these are uncomfortable and a bit rocky, I think that necessary lessons are learned in such environments, and without the give and take of free play the lessons put forth in formal social skills classes never have a chance of being generalized.

Oh, and the bad name he had called the girl? 'Stupid white girl'. The mom had obviously processed this as a racial put down by Buddy Boy. While I'm sure that the 'stupid' part was a put down by him, I know that for him the 'white girl' part was just a descriptor, as he didn't know her name. I didn't stop to explain this to the mom, as I was happy to just make a quick exit.


Sharon McDaid said...

I can't help it, the last bit made me laugh, especially knowing that he only called her white as a description.

I don't think you'd need to avoid that place for so long. Buddy Boy did the wrong thing, though he thought he was helping his sister! But you didn't ignore it like so many parents do at these sorts of places. The mum was probably pleased that you did take action. Children make mistakes, and have to learn how to work out the right way to behave, and it sounds like you're making that happen.

jypsy said...

ROFL... "stupid white girl". Reminds me of the day Alex came home from school all excited in grade 10 telling me about the "old black woman" in his English class. The image he had put in my head was shattered when I later discovered it was someone we knew, roughly my age, (and more golden than black in my books), who had been substitute teaching. It was the day I realized I was an "old white woman" in his eyes.

kristina said...

I guess that is one of the hidden? at times painful values of being in more spontaneous social situations----you can make mistakes. But they're to be learned from too.....what's interesting about the interaction you describe is that it sounds like Buddy Boy was put into something of a conflicting, unclear situation-----having to protect his sister (at her request) and finding that that involved something he ought not to have done.

I've not idea what color I should say I am----though one friend's (on the spectrum son) walked up to me and said "you're Pocahantas!"

Anonymous said...

Good job handling the situation. I agree with staying away for a while, just to give it more weight in Buddy Boy's mind. When my kids misbehaved in public places I always stayed away for a while, too, so the lesson would have some time to sink in.

Also, when autistic kids use color descriptors, it's possible they may not be talking about race at all. When my son was younger, he once looked out the window and said, "There's a black boy on a bike." And then he added, "There's a green boy with him." I looked out the window, and sure enough, there were two boys on bikes, one wearing a black shirt and the other wearing a green shirt.

Ange said...

ahhh. Social skills. We too are often at the park, playplace, etc. Bubba too is often pained that he has no friends. But in the off chance someone comes over... well either he is in their face/space and chattering nonstop or he wants them there, but doesn't want to interact. He plays pretty well with 4/5 year olds because they give him the leniency he needs, and everyone is happy. He is two times bigger and 10 times stronger though, so on playgrounds I am nervous, but stick it out. I keep Bubba in social skills "class" at school only because it is one of the classes he feels competent and successful with his 'friends.' While the things the teacher 'teaches' him are contrived and silly, what Bubba learns by being there is important (if that makes sense).

The wrost 'description' words Bubba ever used was last year when we were swimming at the neighboorhood pool. "Look mom, you and that mommy have the same sunglass...but you're just a medium fat mommy, she's big fat mommy." Yes the woman heard.
I'm glad Buddy Boy is protective of his sister. :)

Club 166 said...

I definitely recognized the conflict that Buddy Boy was put in. And he tried to justify his actions because he was helping her.

But what we've been trying to instill in him (over and over and over again) is that aggression is never the answer. I am far from a total pacifist, but for now believe that it's better to raise a "wuss" than have him get to be fifteen and get shot for resisting arrest.

Buddy Boy's been instructed to use words only (and only in a nice way) to resolve conflict. If that doesn't work, then he's to get an adult.

Once he gets older, I'll work on the nuances. For now, I want him to emulate Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Niksmom said...

Wow, an eye opener for me; we're nowhere near this level of social skills yet! FWIW, my instinct says that I wouldn't keep Buddy Boy away from this esatblishment for too long. You've acknowledged that he was conflicted (or that there were conflicting issues) over protecting his sister and knowing it involved doing something he shouldn't. I wouldn't penalize him for too long on this...give him an oportunity to "map" it and try a different approach in the same environment.

Of course, as I am not in the situation, this is all hypothetical!

Daisy said...

We attended a Harlem Globetrotters show recently and while Amigo enjoyed the humor, he was confused by the jokes that involved race. He had a hard time understanding how these could be acceptable in one situation and not acceptable in another. He recently had a detention for calling someone "Black Girl" in a rude tone of voice.

Anonymous said...

Club 166, I think you are such a good dad. You modeled some very nice social skills for Buddy in that situation, too.

Club 166 said...

@Niksmom-I think that all punishments (especially at this stage for us) need to be immediate, significant enough to be remembered, and short lived. While we likely won't be returning to this particular establishment soon (so that I won't have to look over my shoulder for that particular girl/mom), that doesn't mean we won't be going to other similar establishments (I usually rotate them somewhat anyway). As far as I'm concerned, that incident is over, except for it's being referenced in the future as a way not to manage conflict.

@Daisy-I think if I were blind, I would be both perplexed as well as ticked off at how much energy the rest of us spend on matters of race in society.

@Ms. Clark-Remember, I'm the editor around here. :)


Joeymom said...

Ah, yes, the descriptors. When I was about Sweet Pea's age, my family was at Springfield Mall, just outside of DC. My neighborhood didn't have much racial diversity, and the mall was a swirl of people. There was couple eating in the same establishment we were- an Asian-American lady with her African-American husband and their baby. I turned to my mom, and in a classic preschooler not-really-inside voice, asked, "Mom? Is that baby black or Chinese or what?"

We didn't go to that mall for a while...

Marla said...

We know all about very quick exits! I usually arrange play dates one to one or parks in the summer. I am afraid of germs in the play lands in restaurants. I know that is kinda pitiful but with M's weaker immune system and being sick all the time it seems like every time we go she is sick for a week afterwards.

Play is so much more complicated than I ever realized. So much going on that kids have to process. M does not like kids her own age. I think they talk and move to fast for her. She loves little kids like around age five or so.

I am so glad that you make these extra efforts for your kids. very cool.

Anonymous said...

My autistic kid describes people as "the girl with brown skin" or "the boy with pink skin" and so on. We tried to explain to her what someone meant by "black people" (haven't had to explain "white" yet) and were met by complete lack of comprehension.

Club 166 said...

Our 5 year old NT daughter has been noticing people's race this last year, looking for other African-Americans.

She's identified anyone with brown tint in their skin (South Asians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders) as also being African-American. Gradually she's getting it, but it has been a bit funny along the way (such as when she goes up to someone from India and asks if they're African-American, too).