Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Proper Care and Feeding of Sea Lawyers

I graduated from the United States Naval Academy many moons ago, and one of the first lessons I learned the very first summer was never to make excuses about anything, even legitimate excuses. When we messed up and an upperclassman asked why (a hypothetical question, obviously), the only acceptable answer was, “No excuse, Sir (or Ma’m)!” They honestly did not care about the reason and, if we issued an excuse, they yelled at us twice as hard (once for making a mistake and twice for voicing excuses).

Occasionally, a plebe (freshmen) would have the habit of inventing excuses for everything and would earn the privilege of placing a placard on the door to his room with his name followed by “Attorney at Sea”. Such a sign was like cutting yourself in shark-infested waters: any firstie in a foul mood would pop in and “chat” long enough for said sea lawyer to dream up an excuse. The firstie could then flame all over the attorney at sea. In the vernacular, a sea lawyer is someone who attempts to shirk responsibility through trivial technicalities, so it appears this word has migrated into the public sphere.

Sometimes autistic children, who face so many challenges caused by their sensory system and highly attune radar for detail, can fall into the habit of making excuses. Pamela is like the little engine that could: she has such courage to try and try until she masters something. When a listmate on Aut-2B-Home asked about handling kids who come up with excuses for everything, my sea lawyer in training (my neurotypical son) has given me plenty of experience. Here are my guidelines for the proper care and feeding of sea lawyers:

Address each excuse seriously at first. If a child complains about having too much light, that may be legitimate because autistic people have highly sensitive sensory systems. Turn off the overhead lights, pull down the blinds or close the curtains, or replace the 100-watt bulb with a 40-watt one. If a child is cold, get some socks or a jacket or move to the couch and cuddle up with a blanket. Seriously handle excuses involving sensory issues.

Address each excuse seriously with unpopular answers. When a child runs out of real reasons and starts making excuses, think of true solutions guaranteed to be unpopular with your child. Here are some of my all-time favorite conversations with my little attorney at sea:

  • Sea Lawyer: "I'm too tired to do math."
  • Mom: "Gee, I'm sorry about that! I guess from now on I'll have to set an earlier bedtime for you because your body needs the rest."
  • SL: "Uh. . . never mind. . . My head hurts."
  • Mom: "Gee, I'm sorry. Why don't you lie down. You've probably had too much screen time, so no more electronics other than radio for today."
  • SL: "Oh, I was just kidding. . . I'm just too stupid to learn math."
  • Mom: "I'm not giving up on you. I was stupid too. Let me see if I can explain it another way. Please be patient with me while I think this through." Then we do the math, using another tactic.

Toss in some humor to cut through the tension. When your sea lawyer comes up with far-fetched dillies, give him a dose of humor. Some autistic children do understand humor. However, this will not work with highly literal and highly sensitive children.

  • SL: "I can't find any pencil lead."
  • Mom, who knows there IS pencil lead and attorney at sea has not bothered to look for it. "Get the knife. You'll have to write this sheet in blood."

Make the sea lawyer turn around an excuse and write it as a positive comment five times. At some point, it is obvious the sea lawyer is pushing my buttons to get out of his work. He hates writing, so having to write anything five times causes him to think before he speaks.

  • SL in a whiny voice: “I can’t learn this stuff.”
  • Mom: “That’s enough. Turn over your sheet and write this five times: ‘I can learn this stuff with enough practice.’”
Use excuse making to sharpen wits. Some sea lawyers may really be attorneys in the making and enjoy a rigorous debate. When my sea lawyer is in a good mood and working steadily, I humor him by seeing how far the one-upmanship goes before someone “wins”:
  • SL after only two problems: “If you don’t let me stop now, I’m going to crumple up my paper.”
  • Mom: “Well, I’m going to throw it in the trash and make you start over.”
  • SL: “Well, I’m going to tell everyone that you make me work too hard.”
  • Mom: “Then, I’m going to show everyone your crumpled up paper and see if they agree.”
This verbal exchange goes on until someone runs out of ideas, and, as long as the lively banter stays warm and affectionate and the sea lawyer keeps working, then the mother of the sea lawyer does not mind a test of wits.

Be reasonable and give the sea lawyer a break.
Sometimes the attorney at sea has been working diligently, putting forth a good effort. If the work is not finished, give him a break after he reaches a designated problem and have him finish it later.

Show why doing the work is important to his personal goals.
My son plans to attend college and major in history (the farthest thing removed from math). To enter the college of his choice, he must excel in algebra so that he can score high on the SAT or other entrance exams. Whether he likes it or not, he must master high-level math to reach his personal goals.

Show why doing the work prevents negative consequences.
My son hates when people treat him shabbily. I tell him that if he cannot handle basic math in life, crooks might take advantage of him and swindle him. He might bounce checks and develop a bad credit history.

Illustrate how annoying excuses are when his interests are at stake.
I talk about how no one is going to want to help a person who makes a bunch of excuses. People find it frustrating and depressing to be around someone moaning and groaning all the time. From time to time, I might act like him so he can see how silly it appears.
  • Mom (in whiny voice): "David, I can't wash your clothes. My feet hurt. You can get by with dirty underwear, right? I'm sure nobody will notice the smell. I’m tired!"
Show why doing things right benefits the sea lawyer. A perfect example happened last night. He took an algebra test and just wrote answers, showing hardly any work, because he “knew” the answers. He earned a D, but I promised to write a make-up test if he promised to show his work. He took the second test and circled the wrong answer on four out of fifteen questions! I studied his work, and he had calculated his answers correctly but carelessly circled the wrong answer! I used this opportunity to demonstrate how, as teacher I could in good conscious mark these correct after he circled the right answers because he had shown his work completely and, without a doubt, how he had done the math correctly. I showed him his scratch paper and compared it to the answers he circled. I kept my tone very light, and we chuckled about how ditzy he was. He saw clearly how showing his work earned him an A, instead of another D. Then I reminded him that SAT is multiple-choice for math, and the computer has no sympathy for students with teenheimers.

Write social stories if talking does not help. You can illustrate most of these ideas in social stories, which are worth writing when conversations do not help.

1 comment:

Taffy said...

Tee Hee! You tickled my funny bone!

I'd never heard of the term "sea lawyer" before. I'll have to remember that one...