Saturday, March 31, 2012

Amazing Grace

I rarely rant, but a friend sent me a link that has forced me to get this off my chest.

No! I will not expose the family who created a behavior chart "sanitized" by Bible verses with a link. Since people who read my blog understand the importance of relationships, you will understand even if the family in question may not. Ironically, the post that, er, inspired this rant has no comments. Yes, ZERO! You can literally hear the crickets chirping in the background of that one.

The couple struggles with complete disrespect (a youngster yelling mean things to Mom and Pop or slamming things hard enough to break them). They consulted an autism therapist and a popular book by a Christian psychologist to develop the contract the whole family signed. Sigh. The parents gave it the Christian seal of approval: they prayed, developed rules, and backed each rule up with Bible verses. Each rule has a consequence which the couple administers with absolute consistency. After the consequence, Mom and Dad send an unruly child to the bedroom until calm. Then, they kiss, make up, and pray together.

One of their rules is "Respect All Adults." I believe giving a child with autism such a black-and-white rule may be harmful in the long run. Because social behavior is so complicated, people with autism tend to boilerplate socialization into a system of elaborate rules. Trying to reduce social skills to rules is what gets them into trouble because social behavior depends upon context and the unique characteristics of people interacting together. What is acceptable at one time and group is intolerable at another.

Moreover, all adults are not worthy of respect. Jose Salinas, a fourth grader with cerebral palsy, often came home from school sick but told his mother he had a "good day" when asked. The parents knew something wasn't right. "We knew he hated going to school. We tried every medical test we could think of, but we never could find anything wrong." His classmate tipped her off to what was happening at school. His mother caught on audio tape a teacher and teacher's aide verbally mistreating her son. The recordings made over three days document lack of one-on-one instructions, harsh verbal commands, insults, etc. The mother noted that her son "received about 20 minutes of actual instruction and spent almost the entire day sitting in silence with no one speaking to him."

The two educators are on administrative leave until the school board meets on April 9. Jose hasn't been sick lately, and his classmates have noticed that Jose is "smiling all the time, talking all the time, nothing but happy." Although some segments of tape disturbed the Superintendent of the school district, he also noted that the two educators (now on paid administrative leave) "could have been attempting to reinforce the therapist’s treatment plan [for drooling]." Just because a child has a treatment plan and a goal does not make the situation any less wrong.

Even if we homeschool and attempt to place our children out of harm's way, we cannot protect them from the ignorant, or worse people with evil intentions. What about ill-informed neighbors making life for our kids difficult? What about restaurant employees who look down on them for acting oddly? What about the stranger at the store who tells you that all your kid needs is a good spanking in the middle of a meltdown? What about the visiting couple sitting behind you in church nudging each other because your kid stood up and walked up to the deacon with the offering plate? Adults like that warrant keeping a safe distance, but not respect. What about the pedophiles who seek positions of trust such as schools, churches, scout troops, etc. to target vulnerable children?

At times, when Pamela is truly upset and unable to explain herself, she will have a fit or say something disrespectful. The other day, Pamela was adamant about staying longer at watercolor class because she wanted to finish the landscape. When she realized I wasn't caving, she went to her teacher, who is a parent of an autistic child, too. Calming her down required leaving the room, sitting on her favorite couch, breathing deeply, and counting quietly. We compromised: I promised her to finish the painting over the weekend. Later, in a calm moment, I asked her why she was so upset. Pamela told me she wanted to start something new next week: a basket of Easter eggs.

Pamela does respect me. She watches what I do during the day and helps out. We own a hybrid car, and I keep the key in the cup holder. When I am ordering drinks, she will move the key and hold it. I never have to ask her. I never taught her that, either. She enjoys cleaning up trash left in the car by her brother and helps me bring groceries into the house. Last month, I noticed how Pamela was sorting books when we finished reading them. She would put the books for the next day on the fireplace mantel, a holding spot until the daily box was empty. She would put books finished for the week on my computer desk because I prepare next week's plan in the evenings. She would put books we didn't need for a day or two in the storage box. One day, I casually told Pamela, "I think you are ready to set up the daily box." Since that day, I have not had to set up the box!

Nobody is perfect. Pamela loses her cool sometimes, and so do I. We both respect each other even though there are times when we completely disagree. Rather than playing on one another's emotions, we try to seek common ground and come to an understanding that works for both of us. Even when she was a young child, I watched her behavior carefully and respected her unique needs as a person with autism. Rather than insisting she ride elevators by brute force, I saw it as an opportunity to get some exercise by taking the stairs. In time, she conquered her fears on her own terms, which enabled her to conquer other fears.

Oh, and my Bible verse for that is:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise—"so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:1-4
Isn't it funny how "Children, obey your parents" comes to our mind immediately while "Do not exasperate your children" is lost in the cricketsphere?

This family has issues at meals. Children leave too soon or bring toys to the table. They do not find the experience worthy of thanks. This couple homeschools, and I will let all you non-homeschoolers in on a little secret. We spend a lot of time together. Probably too much time! We don't need meals to be the touchstone around which relationships are formed. For me, mealtime is my chance to read a book or catch up on Bible study. I'm quite sure my kids need a break from me, too. So, there you know our dirty little secret. We do not spend meals having our kumbaya moments. It would be overkill for us.

Again, the well-intentioned parents have consequences for leaving the table or bring toys to the table plus a Bible verse for good measure, "Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever" (Psalm 107:1). And, again, I see irony in this verse: we tend to remember the command (give thanks to God) but not God's nature. So, what is mercy? Well, Merriam-Webster says, "Compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power" and "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion." It is God's nature to treat us with love, kindness, and grace even though we have not earned it.

I like the third definition of mercy even more, "compassionate treatment of those in distress." Sometimes, what looks like inappropriate behavior communicates a feeling of distress the child cannot put into words. In the case of Jose Salinas, he came home sick all the time. He didn't want to go to school. Setting up a behavior chart for Jose would have been like giving morphine to someone with a broken arm. It fails to get to the heart of the matter: in his case, verbal abuse. His mother saw his distress, investigated into possible causes, and dealt with the real problem.

I wonder if the family with meal troubles has tried looking beyond the behavior to see what it communicates. Do the children have short attention spans? How long is their attention span? Is it possible for them to sit through a whole meal? Would they do better grazing healthy foods during the day? Do they need a fidget toy to stay on task? Are they having problems digesting food and need to be on a special diet (and picky eating is often a symptom of gut issues)? Does something about the meal frazzle them, requiring a calming toy? Our kids have quite sensitive hearing and everything from the dishwasher running to flickering bulbs to stomachs growling to utensils scraping the plates might be bothersome. Kitchens are full of other stimuli: rays of light bouncing of various surfaces, different types of light, strong smells, etc. Perhaps, they find it hard to feel thankful about such a tortuous experience as eating a meal.

Oh, and my Bible verse for that is:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Romans 8:26
While we are human and are prone to mistakes, we can follow the model the Holy Spirit, who is the source of compassion ("But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" Galatians 5:22-23). We can help our children in their weakness. We can try to search their hearts and find out what is really going on before we start guiding their behavior.


Di said...

This was a fascinating read, a very well informed and respectful rant. I shake my head at those parents...
My heart sank for Jose, the vulnerability of our children and the adults who take advantage of that really scare me.

Pam said...

all this is well and good, but did the family who needs this intervention, receive this message?
I would hope that they were able to read this without being on the defensive else all is futile. Your insight is inspiring as always. I can't believe what an incredible sister and mom you have become.

Happy Elf Mom said...

I appreciated that your post was written lovingly and without the horrid and condescending tone I too often see when a parent doesn't agree with what another parent does on the blogs.

I don't know the people/post in question and I imagine we don't know the whole story. Still, as a general rule, I think you're right on target. God's mercy and grace as well as His being a God of order and such, are qualities we want to reflect in our own lives.

I know Pamela is growing into being a beautiful artist in her own right. I know classes have beginning and end times but it's so hard when you're on a roll to quit! :)

bookworm said...

Di, it is especially sad because the distinctive of trusting in Jesus is grace and mercy but behaviorism had morphed with Christian religious practice and has become legalism.

Pam, awwwww, sniff, sniff. Sometimes, the direct approach makes it worse unless if you know the family and are in a relationship with them. It is hard knowing what is right to do with our kids because there are so many conflicting messages. I will just have to trust that God is sovereign and will reach into their hearts on this issue, just as He has with other friends.

Elf Mum, thanks. We can never know the whole story and it was never shared whether the family assesses the whole child and the whole situations to discern if the children are capable of doing what they are being asked. We all make mistakes and I'm glad my children don't hold mine against me.

poohder said...

My asd child still cannot handle the smell of MANY foods, so requiring her to sit through a meal which 'revolts' her would be cruel. I am praying that God would open this famiy's heart and mind too.

Stephanie said...

I couldn't agree more! Too many parents teach their kids that adults merit respect and obedience simply by virtue of having reached adulthood. As you aptly explained, this harmful message is even more destructive for kids on the autism spectrum, who tend to rely on "rules" to navigate their social world.

bookworm said...

I have the same prayer Poohder. Stephanie, in an ideal world, we could teach children to respect all adults. In the real world, it means adults worthy of respect.