Monday, August 31, 2009

Letting Go...Strings Attached

Our son has always been hyper-sensitive to criticism. When he was a child, this frequently meant tearful outbursts or -- at the very least -- "the lip." (Every parent has seen this expression, the bottom lip curled out and trembling as a child struggles to contain the tears.) He was especially sensitive to criticism from adults outside his immediate family. He would fret over an offhand remark from a stranger in a store telling him to "be careful" or even an uncle who admonished "don't touch that." As our son aged, his reaction to criticism, even constructive and kindly offered, was less demonstrative but equally revealing. Lately if I try to tell him something I believe he needs to focus on, he might ignore me; he might (half-jokingly) whine in a childish voice, "you don't like me;" or he might choose to verbally end the discussion with his latest catch-phrase, "End Scene." Sometimes, he will be receptive and open, and internalize the message.

And so yesterday, one of my parting comments was, "Keep your face clean at the barbecue tonight." And he answered simply, "Okay."

For children and adolescents with an autism spectrum or social communications disorder, there can be a fundamental lack of awareness of some aspects of personal cleanliness. Whereas neuro-typical people might commonly lick their lips and use their napkins as they eat, people outside the range of neuro-typical might not. As toddlers, they are the messy eaters. But even as they mature, they might need frequent reminders to wipe their mouths. I know my son has a firm intellectual grasp of the fact that a face soiled by remnants of lunch is socially unacceptable; but he doesn't necessarily realize that there is ketchup on his chin. So I've spent many meals over the past eighteen years reminding him to use his napkin. Had Dale Carnegie consulted me for his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, my first suggestion would have been to keep your face clean.

I'm guessing that there were not a lot of parents dropping off children at colleges over the past week giving such advice to their teenager. Most will have more important counsel to impart. So imagine, if you can, having to worry about those major issues -- drug and alcohol abuse, sexual relationships, study habits, etc. -- and then throw in how to be successful in the cafeteria so your child won't spend the next four years eating dinner alone. If you can see the magnitude of that, you will understand the need I hope to fill here.

Before we left yesterday, two minor glitches arose that required some coaching. We found out as soon as we arrived at his dorm that his room key was temperamental. One of the school's engineers quickly came to the rescue and loosened the lock a bit. It was still hard for my son to get the key all the way in so he could turn it, and he was trying to tumble the lock with the key only half-way in. Once he realized that he had to jiggle it a little and completely insert it, he mastered the lock quickly. The second hiccup was not as easily fixed. The combination lock for his mailbox was very tricky. I managed to open it once, but could not do it again. I told him if he had trouble when he needed to get his mail, he'd just have to find someone to ask for help. Would he have thought to do that himself? Probably -- one thing he has learned pretty well over the years is how to self-advocate in some situations. A very useful tool for him to have.

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