I was very well-behaved at school. It wasn’t that I always agreed with the reasons for complying, conforming, or doing a particular thing I was asked; I simply found the idea of being told off or criticised in front of others too stressful to contemplate. I drew far too much attention to myself as it was, what with the frequent crying meltdowns, and being singled out for my academic achievements. I was “over-sensitive”, but otherwise a model student.
Even so, I often felt bemused by the instructions, requests, or reprimands given to me and my classmates by our teachers, or others in authority.
“Don’t put your feet on the table! You wouldn’t do that at home, would you?”
The “you wouldn’t do it at home” argument always puzzled me. We aren’t at home. Ergo, of course we have a different attitude to our environment, its furnishings and features. Why would we act the same?
“The school bell is for my benefit, not yours!”
Why is it so loud that we can all hear it, then?
“Make sure you eat all your tea! There are children starving in Africa, you know!”
Why doesn’t someone send them this food, then?
(I never heard this one at home. Despite being autistic, I was never an especially fussy eater, didn’t experience any huge sensory issues with food, and always had second helpings of everything except the meat. But friends’ parents sometimes used it.)
“Bullying is cowardly!”
Please understand that I was never in sympathy with the bullies. Dammit, I was on the receiving end of enough (verbal) tormenting from other kids to have little time for those who did the bullying. My issue was with the incompleteness of the explanation of the word’s meaning. I had initially had it explained to me as meaning a lack of courage, and little more. The opposite of “brave”, and so I therefore took it simply to mean “scared”.
But surely it’s the victim who would be scared of the bully?
The nuances of the word – its implications of contemptibility, spinelessness, and so on – were never laid out for me. And so, whilst I didn’t argue with the notion, I remained confused.
I’ve always needed to know why something needs to be a certain way. I cannot willingly, unwaveringly accept something if I don’t understand the reason for doing so. And so, like many autistic kids, I moved through my school years in a constant state of perplexedness. However adept – or otherwise – we are with language, many of us really do need things to be carefully spelled out to us.
Memories of that perplexed feeling have stuck with me into parenthood. I see some of the things we tell children off for, and I can very clearly imagine myself in their place, and imagine their bemusement.
And, more simply, there are some things which I know that, in polite society, I need to prevent my children from doing, but which personally, I don’t actually care that much about.
Climbing up onto the living-room windowsill? Well, the windows are too high for them to see through at floor-level. The sill itself offers a better view of the world outside, and is deep enough for a small person to sit on comfortably. There’s a sofa immediately beneath the windowsill to provide a soft landing should they fall, and both my children are fairly adept climbers. They’re not damaging anything, or hurting themselves or each other, and they look like they’re having fun.
Taking saucepans out of the kitchen cupboards and banging on them? Well, it’s a little noisy (and this is something I really struggle with), and we’ll have to rinse them out afterwards as they’ve been all over the floor. But at least it keeps my toddler occupied and draws his attention away from the fridge contents.
Clambering up the slide in the playground (holding onto the rails, of course), rather than sliding down it? Well, it’s not the conventional route. But no other children are using it right now – if they were, I’d move my child to the steps. It’s fun to try out new ways of moving around a space, I’m happy for my children to take measured risks, and I’m there to catch them if they slip.
It’s very difficult to come across as authentic in telling a child off for something you yourself don’t actually see as a problem. I’m very much the slacker in our two-parent partnership in that respect. But I’m very much aware that my husband and I need to set boundaries, and explain to our children that whilst some social rules might not seem to make sense, other people may be upset if they do not follow them.
I’m the first to admit I’m far from perfect as a parent. I’m often short-tempered because of my reactions to sensory overstimulation. My understanding of social rules, and my intepretation of the logic behind them, might be somewhat wayward. But perhaps my ability to relate to childhood confusion about such things helps me to be a little more considered in how I support my children to deal with the pitfalls and challenges of being amongst people.
And there are some behaviours I have no difficulty in encouraging my children to adopt. Saying “please” and “thank you”. Acknowledging when they have done something to upset someone else, what was wrong about it, and apologising. Sharing. Helping others. Being kind and considerate towards other people and animals.
For me, the logic of being empathetic, compassionate and understanding makes instinctive sense.
[Featured image: “Adventure Playground” in Holland Park, by Joe Shlabotnik.]