Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mama Be Good: Autism and "Good Job"

Autism and "Good Job" | Jun 18th 2012
We hear it on every playground. "Good job" is a constant refrain in modern parenting. It seems like an improvement on "good boy" or "good girl."

My son Jack was eight months old and just diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he started therapy. "Good job!," the physical therapist cheered, as she picked his foot up and moved it sideways, walking him side to side against the sofa. "Good job!," I'd choke through my tears as Jack cried in distress while the PT rolled him over, back to front. His first therapist said "good job" so often, Jack still repeats it back to me.

We parents say "good job" to our kids when they share, write, say "thank you," or ask another child for a turn. "Good job" by itself seems benign. A bit trite maybe, but an easy, cheerful phrase that parents can pull out. And we parents need many motivation tools to keep our kids on track for daily activities. For example, my son frequently doesn't want to eat because of reflux, a reduced ability to detect hunger, or sensory issues with eating. He needs to eat, so I have to have motivators.

But when I thought about "good job" and what it means to my child, I stopped saying it. It has too many risks, risks that weren't obvious until I looked at it in the context of disability.

1. External Feelings of Worth

From a motivation standpoint, "good job" feels too much like manipulation, rather than motivation. It's praising a child for performing, for doing what we want him to do.

Jack, from the bathtub: Bring my key, Mommy.
Me, holding up the Jeep key: Did you want this one
Jack: Yeah, that one. You can put it on the sink.
Me: There it is.
Jack: Did you bring me my key? The one I wanted you to bring? Good job, Mommy!

He gets it.

It's "good job because you did what I wanted." Performance praise can lead to a child feeling worthy or capable only when he gets validation from someone else. It can cause a child to feel resentful or resistant to the activity. My son is much more likely to fight back if he feels manipulated, just like I would. Instead, if I focus on my child's natural motivators like curiosity, playfulness, and relatedness, it fosters his feelings of autonomy and competence. Those feelings come from within himself and because of who he is, not because of external validation.

Also, I had to pause at using words to praise behavior when I thought about the risk that autistic children face for bullying and depression. I don't want my son to rely on the things people say about him to determine his worth. I want him to have resilience from his natural strengths, things he can do, not because of words people say about his behavior.

Autistic or non-autistic, our children need that protective anchor of knowing they are good enough, no matter what someone says about how they act.

2. Emphasis on Behavior

I also worried about the amount of time spent focusing on behavior that "good job" was leading me to. Maybe for non-autistic children, a focus on behavior represents a small percentage of the parent-child relationship. But most autistic children hear behavior-based judgments a good part of the day. They are judged on behaviors in behavioral therapies, physical, speech, and occupational therapies, in the classroom, and at home. Autistic children spend a large amount of their childhood immersed in behavior-focused programs.

I worried that focusing on behavior for most of my son's childhood would reduce his ability to feel good about himself, about me, and about our relationship. I need ways out of that focus, so we could feel the joy of our experiences, our interests, and our relationship.

3. Matching Behavior to Intent

Sometimes my child has good intentions or no intent to harm and things happen anyway. He can't always control his external actions because of his disability. When behavior is the result we want, we ignore whether the child has good intent, bad intent, or no intent. That's problematic because we don't know if the child is capable of matching his behavior to his intention at that particular moment. Maybe in that moment, he can't. He might be overwhelmed by emotions, motor skills, sensory issues, or pain. He may not be aware of his physical actions or may not be physically capable of the motor skills and processing necessary to control his actions.

Many times after Jack has experienced an overwhelming moment, I ask him about a physical action that happened. "Do you know where you threw your keys?" I ask. "I threw my keys?" he responds incredulously. He isn't even aware of what he's doing and, when he is, he can't always calm his brain or body or demand that they perform together as he needs them to.

Part of my child's autism is an inability to match external actions to his thoughts, so I want to explore his ideas, emotions, and ways of thinking with him to give him avenues for expression and handling frustration.

4. Disability and Morality

When I say "good job," I worried about the "good." It sounds like I think my child is good when he does something, that he's acting in a morally acceptable way only when he acts a certain way. But that puts a moral spin on his capabilities. He's "good" if he performs the behavior and "bad" if he doesn't or can't.

Sometime his behavior looks like he won't perform, so even it's really that he can't, it doesn't matter. Whether he won't or can't, it's the opposite of good. It's bad. And those are the only two choices: good or bad. If that's true, then I've turned disability into a morality issue. Sometimes he can't perform and performance praise tells him that's "bad."

I don't want him to think that disability, an inability to perform, is a moral failing.

5. Disability as Effort

When I'm giving my child a "good job," I'm also urging him to try. While I do want him to try, I don't want to turn disability into an issue of will power. We can slide easily into the belief that overcoming a disability is a matter of effort. "If only he would TRY harder, he could overcome his autistic symptoms." That would mean ignoring that autism is a life-long disability. It means overlooking a natural variability of symptoms. It means believing, even in a well-meaning way, that our child is too tired or overwhelmed to try, but, if he made an effort, he could do it. We have to realize that autistics simply can't look us in the eye, or keep reading the book, or stop from melting down because of their disability, not because of a lack of effort. We have to acknowledge that autistics may want to do something, but can't - because of disability, not for a lack of trying.

6. Conclusion

Autism is not a behavioral failure, not a moral failing, not a matter of keep trying hard enough and you'll be typical. It is a disability.

I want to focus on my child, to find out who he really is, and to think abut our relationship, instead of behaviors. I want to help him find activities that bring them joy, discover what makes him happy, show him the fun of relationships. Those things would be positive motivators to last his entire life. When Jack was a baby in physical therapy, he didn't care about moving sideways on the sofa or rolling over or crawling. But if I made me the reward, with a silly face or a song or silly noises, the relationship becomes the reward. It's enjoyable for both of us. It tells him "I like you. I want you near me." It tells him "you are worthy for who you are, not for what you do." So he learned to walk by facing his walker on the porch towards Miss Susu waving to him from her porch. He learned to crawl superfast in circles to get Daddy to make those silly sounds.

I would think this message, "you are worthy for who you are, not for what you do," would be clearer in disability than in any other world.

There are plenty of expressions for cheerleading, but I won't be using "good job." The greatest thing I can do for my child, disabled or non-disabled, is to let him know that he is loved just as he is, not for what he can or cannot do.


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