When Experience Isn’t the Best Teacher

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Last week, I wrote a post about how difficult it can be to correct Hope’s behavior in public, because quite often people will tell us that what she did was “OK” (http://bestmademislaidplans.net/it-really-is-not-ok/).

I mentioned that it undermines the message I’m trying to communicate, that her behavior was out of bounds and not OK. And that while it may be excusable in a cute little kid, I’m trying to correct issues that won’t be cute when she’s a grown adult.

That post hit a nerve! In 4 days, my website got about a 500% increase in traffic. I heard from a lot of parents who share my concern, and who are also fearful for their children’s futures if certain behaviors can’t be brought under control before they reach adulthood.

One reader, however, had a different take. She wrote on my Facebook page, “Hmmm…This is an interesting situation and I can feel your frustration with Hope and the “stranger mom’s”…I’m trying to figure out how to give an opinion without contradicting or offending you. I guess I would say, you can’t protect her always, and she needs to learn on her own about personal boundaries and at some point someone (else), will correct her, which will become part of what she needs to learn…meanwhile she’s “reading” these mom’s and so far it’s been a non-issue, in fact they may have enjoyed her gift of saying “hello” in the way she says it. I guess I would say, correct her, but also allow the process? I don’t have kids, so I probably shouldn’t say anything at all…💕”

I really appreciate the chance to address this comment, because I bet a lot of people feel the same way. Conventional wisdom does indeed tell us that we learn from our mistakes. That experience is the best teacher, that you need to do to learn. And while that’s true for a lot of people, it’s just not the case for many on the autism spectrum.

I thought about my response quite a bit. How do you explain this to people who aren’t living with autism on a daily basis?  Strangely, what kept coming to mind is the movie “50 First Dates.”

Veterinarian Henry meets his dream girl: sweet, quirky and charming Lucy. He falls for her hard and fast, but something isn’t quite right. People behave strangely around Lucy, newspapers disappear, television is always pre-recorded shows from years ago. Something is wrong.

We learn that Lucy has had a car accident that makes her unable to remember the last few years of her life. Every day, she wakes up with no memory of the days, weeks or years that have passed. Henry has to meet her for the “first” time every day. All of those dates, conversations and kisses have no meaning within a matter of hours because Lucy can’t remember them. Every single day, Henry is a stranger.

You can feel Henry’s frustration at loving a girl who won’t remember him the next day. If she would JUST remember, they could have a perfect life. But Lucy will never remember, because her brain will not let her. It’s not a matter of WON’T, but a matter of CAN’T. Her brain is now wired differently, and she will never be the same.

Of course, “50 First Dates” is a Hollywood love story, and although Lucy’s brain injury isn’t reversed, she and Henry do find their way to a happy ending. All is well, and they (literally) sail off into their happy ending.

But we, and thousands of families like ours, aren’t living a movie that has a neatly wrapped up ending and instead are dealing with real life. Our kids brains are wired differently, and some of those differences are beautiful, lovely and awe-inspiring. And some make living in a typical world so very difficult.

Our kids often don’t learn by experience because of their learning differences. Again, not a matter of WON’T, but a matter of CAN’T RIGHT NOW. But the good news is that unlike poor Lucy, our kids do have the capability to learn and make new synapses. The bad news is that it can take weeks, months or years of hard, consistent work.

Right now, Hope doesn’t have the awareness to know that approaching a stranger for a hug can be scary or uncomfortable for the other person.  That if she picks the wrong person, she could be making herself vulnerable to a predator.

And while the other person may have a bad reaction and upset Hope, she more than likely will not realize that her behavior is what made the other person upset. Generally speaking, she is so unaware of the effects of her actions on others that she wouldn’t understand why that person is yelling at her or having their own freak out. She would be upset and traumatized, but she wouldn’t take away the message that she needs to alter her behavior in the future.

Hope is still learning that other people don’t feel what she feels. If it feels good to her, she assumes that it will feel good to you, too. Hope’s sense of touch is under-sensitive, she likes a lot of firm touch, and it can be painful sometimes. And she has poor impulse control, which is why concrete rules help to curb some of her poor choices.

So we try to have hard and fast rules about being gentle, about not touching strangers, about limiting how affectionate she is with friends and acquaintances. Because not being consistent and not giving her direct feedback confuses her. If it was OK yesterday, why not today? One inconsistencies or mixed message can undo months of hard work.

My friend K is the mom to a wonderful son with autism, D. D is one of the sweetest, kindest and most affectionate kids I’ve ever known. At 13, he’s about 6’3″, and strangers no longer give him the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what K had to say about a really scary incident involving D: ” He used to kiss everyone’s hand and then he would go in to kiss the tops of heads of smaller kids.

When he hit 5′ tall and was only 8 years old and wanted to kiss a little girl who was about 3, her mom about beat him up. Had I not been there to explain, she would would have accosted my son.

As parents, allowing the process to take place is important, but not at the risk of their personal safety. I completely understood that mom protecting her little girl just as she understood my protecting my son.”

How absolutely frightening! But if you were the parent of that little girl and saw a full grown man approaching your toddler wanting a kiss, you’d freak, too. That’s why these things have to be learned before our kids are grown and why I hold a hard line with Hope.

Again, I hope that this better explains why we can’t just let our kids reap the consequences of their actions. I really do thank my friend for posting her thoughts and giving me the opportunity to further explain, and I hope I made some sense in my explanation. I’d really love to hear your further thoughts about this, too!


2 thoughts on “When Experience Isn’t the Best Teacher”

  1. As someone with a physical disability and bad balance I appreciate you teaching your daughter to not pull people down! I would probably fall on top of her! But I would also like to be understanding so how could I respond in a way that is sensitive to the situation (I’ve had a few random huggers over the years) but also doesn’t undermine the parent/caregiver or encourage inappropriate social skills?

    1. That is such a great question, thank you for asking! When this happens to me as a parent, I usually say something along the lines of, “Thank you so much for being so kind and understanding. But this is actually a skill we’ve been working very hard on, so I really do have to address it with her right now.”

      To back a parent up, I’d suggest simply saying, “Your mom is right, I don’t really care for hugs. But I’m glad you want to be friends. Maybe we could just be friends who wave (or high five, etc).” Redirection or other options can be a great tool.

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