Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

A 5 Is Against the Law!

Written By: Anachan - Sep• 04•16

With an autistic teenager, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to approach her about her, um, unusual social behavior. It was new ground with my second daughter, who is my first autistic daughter. While we in her family loved and tolerated her eccentricities, and while her teachers at school learned to love her quirks, she often either found herself isolated from or isolating herself from her peers or adults who wouldn’t take the time to see beyond the outside behavior. (She was actually bullied out of one of her schools, because of her odd behavior and her inability to understand when other students were trying to tease her.)

Her whole life has been one unusual social interaction after another, prompting us to teach and correct after the fact.  But when she was approaching 18, I began to feel somewhat overwhelmed.  How on earth was I going to be able to get this child, who was emotionally years below her calendar age, socially ready for college? I was primarily worried about her basic interactions with people on a daily basis: her roommate, her professors, the college financial aid office, or a less-forgiving employer. I knew she had to be able to self-regulate, especially when she became overwhelmed or frustrated, but even with our years of learning how to manage with her, I was at a loss how to teach her these things, especially with her growing desire for independence sometimes pushing me farther away.  (Alternating with violent hugs.)

“Maybe I could talk her into a career working with animals,” I wondered. After all, she’s had great success dealing with chickens, turkeys, and ducks, and they do not care if she suddenly bursts into random giggles for no apparent outside reason. (Unlike, say, her Sunday School class.)

As a person with a certain amount of social awkwardness myself, I remember having to consciously learn about social skills when I was growing up. I was lucky enough to move a couple of times in my teen years, giving me opportunities to experiment with different approaches. (In one move, I decided to clam up; in another, to be bubbly and friendly, when the clamming up didn’t have desirable results.) I developed the habit of carrying on conversations with imaginary people in mirrors, something which helped me learn how to have an appropriately expressive face on conversations, something I still unconsciously sometimes do, and something which helped me develop my “writing voice.” My father, perhaps realizing I needed some extra help, assigned me to read etiquette books in high school and report on them to my siblings, so I had some “rules” to follow, which was helpful. And years of making mistakes as an adult helped fine-tune some of my skills; but even so, I still have to actively think about what I’m doing when I interact with people, or I will likely inadvertently offend someone.

However, my own experience with self-teaching could not readily be translated into learning experiences for my daughter. After all, in those situations, generally speaking, nobody had been teaching me; I had no model to follow to know how to impart this kind of information to her. (Aside from having her read an etiquette book, but the closest I got to that was a book on manners for adolescent girls, which was better than nothing.)

So it was with a certain amount of desperation that I finally decided to order A 5 Is Against the Law! by Kari Dunn Buron. I say “desperation” not only because I was at my wits’ end how to teach this child, but also because, it drove me crazy that this roughly $20 book was only 54 pages! How could it cover enough material in 54 pages to be worth that amount of money! Would my daughter enjoy it enough to pay attention to what it said; would it contain enough information for me to understand the point; and, most worrying of all, would it leave the job undone, leaving me once again at my wits’ end, wondering how to get the point across to my daughter that certain actions, while possibly harmless on the surface, hurt a person socially?

When the book arrived, I sat down with her so we could start reading it together and discussing the main idea.

Kari Dunn Buron presents a five-point scale by which to measure behavior, with “one” being very casual behavior (saying “hi” as you pass someone in the hall), “two” being socially acceptable behavior, “three” being behavior which makes a person seem a little odd, “four” being behavior which makes other people feel very uncomfortable or emotionally threatened, and “five” being behavior which is physically hurtful or threatening, almost always against the law. She points out that level four behavior may also get someone in trouble with the law, such as stalking, and even level three behavior could get someone fired from a job, such as from a position which involves customer service. Examples are provided of these kinds of behaviors, including how what starts as a level two, harmless, behavior could end up morphing into a level four, threatening behavior, without the person realizing what is happening, because often, it is all about the perceptions held by the people around them.

As autistic children often get themselves into trouble when their anxiety level rises, leading to meltdowns, it also applies a similar five-point scale to feelings of anxiety. It is suggested that readers learn to recognize when their anxiety level has risen to the point where they are no longer thinking clearly and have a plan to lower it back to a “safe” level.

I knew the book was going to end up being a good thing when my daughter took it with her after our first reading session and finished every page on her own.

It was useful for us to have this scale, because it gave us a reference for discussion on or correction of her behavior. If I saw her moving into possibly inappropriate behavior, I could tell her, “Honey, you’re getting into level four behavior,” and she would understand what it meant and take steps to back down.

When she finally graduated from high school and was packing to go to college, we encountered the book among the things in her room. I held it up. “Should I pack this book among the things you are leaving here?”

She cocked her head to one side and considered. “I think I’d better take it with me. I might need a reminder.”

That’s a ringing endorsement, if ever I heard one! And now that my younger autistic daughter is in high school, I’ve purchased another copy.

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