Improving social and communication skills through humour and novelty
Before having my son, I had always assumed I would fall into the ‘benign neglect’ school of parenting. I would be laid back, give as much freedom as possible, and provide opportunities for adventure, risk-taking and learning through doing. I would be able to continue with my own hobbies and interests while my child or children frolicked and played with minimal input or effort from me. Having a child with no sense of danger, limited social and communication skills and little interest in anything outside his very limited special interests, who seemed to need a lot of teaching to learn everyday skills, seemed to put a spanner in the works.
Once a child has a diagnosis of autism there is a sense that we must encourage and push development, to somehow shrink the gap between our autistic children and their typically developing peers. I would imagine most of us spend the period after diagnosis searching for the most effective methods and techniques to support our children’s development. Expensive and intensive programmes and therapies are out of reach for most parents, and may not fit with our own beliefs and lifestyles. Most of us muddle along with a combination of health and educational provision, learning from the professionals we encounter, books, internet resources and research, from other parents (in real life and online), and a great big dose of trial and error.
I mentioned in my last post how I use humour as a parenting tool. In this post I want to share some of the spontaneous moments, opportunities for learning and less conventional means of supporting development. These examples weren’t planned, they were mostly just little off the cuff moments when I was able to take advantage of an opportunity to impact my son’s thinking. This post might also give a flavour to how I parent on a day to day basis.
Despite my son having excellent speech and a huge vocabulary, he has always struggled with non-verbal communication. I had tried the traditional ways of teaching him to interpret tone and intent from posture and facial expressions, but he just couldn’t get it. I had tried responding to him in non-verbal ways, which just made him angry. I had tried introducing books and resources to explain, but he refused to look. As far as he was concerned, words were enough, the rest was superfluous. What could he possibly learn from body language and facial expressions? Why was it important? Did it even exist?
Then we adopted our current cat. We’d had a cat from before my son was born but she was aloof and solitary. NewCat is different. He’s a tolerant, people-pleasing, attention-seeking, huge lump of a cat. His life before he came to us meant he had developed a sophisticated set of poses and signals to manipulate humans into giving him attention. As my son began to research cat psychology, and learned to interpret posture and behaviour, he learned the value of non-verbal communication. It hadn’t been enough to teach it as an abstract concept. My son needed to experience communicating without words and see for himself that it had value.
For as long as I can remember my son has been fascinated by language. His early echolalia has developed into a talent for mimicry, of both style and genre. He has at various times played around with language, dropping consonants for a while, making up words and being ‘creative’ with sentence structure. He has always had a clever sense of humour and a liking for the absurd, so comedy programmes have been a source of entertainment we could share as a family. They have also provided fruitful learning opportunities and have been a wonderful tool to support his social development. Here are some of his favourites and what he’s gained from them:
(You will notice that we are not strict adherents to age ratings, however, some episodes of some series are more suitable than others, and we use our own judgement.)
Would I Lie to You – the BBC panel show where contestants read statements about themselves, which might be true or false, and attempt to convince their opponents they are telling the truth. WILTY provides a perfect opportunity to think and talk about plausibility, honesty and lies. Body language, tone of voice and content can be analysed. As a family we can model turn taking and forming an argument as we come to a decision.
Fawlty Towers/Father Ted/Blackadder – Three classic comedy programmes providing a rich source of material for discussing communication, misinterpretation and relationships between characters. The exaggerated social reality of these programmes can be used to great effect when exploring social interaction and social relationships.
The Mighty Boosh – Absurd anarchic comedy which values difference and shows unusual friendships, explores fitting in and, mostly, provides a wealth of material to imitate and amuse his peers! It can be crass and uncomfortable viewing at times as it skates close to the edge of ‘decency’, but we can use this to consider the lines between acceptable and unacceptable humour and how we define offensive.
The Day Today/Brass Eye – Chris Morris’s sometimes controversial comedy series, which satirise and parody mainstream media, have provided plenty of material for discussion. Like ‘The Mighty Boosh’, they challenge ideas about what’s appropriate. They also encourage discussion about issues of interpretation, representation and truth, particularly helpful with an autistic child struggling to understand sarcasm and irony in daily life.
Stewart Lee – It has been hard to encourage my son to think more broadly about what’s going on in the wider world. Whilst the Chris Morris series provided a framework, our recent introduction to Stewart Lee’s more contemporary and political humour has provided much food for thought. It can be a little disconcerting when my son rants about his day in the style of Stewart Lee!
Comedy works for us because it’s a way to explore communication and behaviour in a way that doesn’t feel like ‘work’ or ‘therapy’ or an ‘intervention’. It’s also proved to be a really effective way to build social and cultural capital.
For as long as I can remember my son has struggled with optimism. He is often pessimistic, nihilistic and has a somewhat glass-half-empty approach to life. His problems with recognising and regulating his emotions have meant a tendency to only see, feel and recognise extremes. Life is either super-fantastic-best-day-ever or terrible-dreadful-worst-day-ever. Since he was about 5 or 6 years old, the worst-day-ever days have occasionally resulted in him expressing a wish to die. As a parent this is a heartbreaking thing to hear from your child and really quite alarming. Maybe being autistic gave me an emotional advantage here, because I approached his suicidal expressions fairly rationally and logically. At the time I knew he wasn’t capable of carrying this out and the moments were fleeting. There were no signs of sadness or depression, but there were signs of high anxiety and the obvious problems around emotions. I concluded that the talks of death were his way to say he was very anxious.
I have used a variety of methods to reduce anxiety and we have made extraordinary progress, but he would still utter these negative and extreme thoughts and I continued to think how best to address it. After mentioning it to an OT, a referral to CAMHS was suggested, but I knew this wasn’t a mental health problem, it was an autistic problem. With this issue he was struggling with his emotional literacy, not his mental health, and, like many parents of autistic children, I was wary of intervention by staff with little understanding of autism. My breakthrough came when my son read Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series of novels. Marvin the Paranoid Android’s glum expressions of woe were a perfect fictional representation of my son’s negative thoughts. By drawing this parallel, we were able to talk about negativity and catastrophising in new ways. Now we can describe his worst-day-ever utterances as ‘doing a Marvin’ we’ve found a humorous way to interpret and help manage these extreme thoughts.
I would not suggest this sort of lighthearted approach to anyone parenting a child who is genuinely suicidal. I knew my son wasn’t because we would talk more objectively about it when his anxiety was low. He is also completely and utterly pain averse, and highly sensitive, so we could make light of the very idea of harming himself. What this approach did was provide a means to show how disproportionate his responses were, and that here is a limit to how many worst-day-ever days you can have.
Minecraft must be the most popular autistic child pastime ever. My son was a reluctant Minecrafter to start, put off by its popularity and his determination not to be like other children. Once he decided he would try it he was quickly hooked and there’s no doubt it helped him find common ground among his peers. More recently, playing Fallout 4 has enabled him to discuss game content, strategies and progress with his friends at school.
An unexpected bonus of this particular game has been around manners and politeness. My son has always maintained that he ‘cannot see the point of manners’, and frequently refused to adopt such social conventions. It has been exasperating on many occasions. Part of the gameplay of Fallout 4 is increasing your ‘perks’, a series of character traits which aid your progress through the game. One morning, not very long ago, my son was describing the ‘charisma perk’, telling me how this helped his character get what he wanted, and that upping his charisma made him more appealing to other characters. I pointed out that this was a bit like using manners in real life, by levelling up his manners he might discover that people are more helpful, more kind and maybe he’d be more likely to get what he wants! I’ve used this analogy since and it’s proved more meaningful than years of trying to teach manners.
When my son was given a detention for swearing I was just a little bit pleased. He had been wound up by another pupil and had sworn at them, which was witnessed by a teacher, resulting in a detention. Throughout primary school he had struggled with his temper and been aggressive to other children numerous times. He knew it was against the rules, he didn’t want to lash out, but he had no control. My focus for years has been on finding ways to reduce his instinctive fight response to even the mildest stimulus (I hope to talk more about this behaviour in later posts).
Children swearing is often considered a sign of poor parenting, indicating a lack of boundaries and inappropriate modelling. Both my partner and I swear though we tried hard not to when we became parents. As it turned out my son learned most of his swear words (including those usually considered most offensive) from his peers. Phew. I didn’t realise at the time, but as his repertoire of swear words increased, his violent behaviours decreased. It became apparent that swearing provided a verbal means to express anger and frustration . It may not be what most parents aspire to, but the move from a physical expression of anger to a verbal expression feels like progress to me.
I don’t think that any of this is revolutionary or original. I am drawing attention to it because I think many of us parents feel powerless, particularly in the earlier years. We don’t feel skilled to do what we think our children need. We assume we will get professional help for our children. We expect the professionals to know more than we do! But I wonder if we might make better progress (certainly in some areas of development) with a more informal and spontaneous approach. Just because a child has a disability doesn’t mean parenting has to be serious. It is possible, possibly preferable, to address sometimes very serious problems with humour.
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