Saturday, January 7, 2012

Autism Diaries XXXI: Mischievous perspective-taking

"Just tell him what your perspective is. Tell him how if he turns the lights off while you're trying to cook supper, you can't see what your doing."

This advice, given to us over a decade ago by the first psychiatrist to identify J as autistic, is as misguided now as it was back then.

Back then, it was misguided because J had neither the linguistic skills, nor the basic psychological reasoning skills, to even begin to understand things like "If you turn the lights off, Mommy can't see."

Now it's misguided because J has these skills and derives delight from frustrating others. In fact, one of his latest interests is, as he puts it, "to see people's reactions." "How did you react when you saw me filming fans in the restaurant?" he asks, hoping to hear that we felt embarrassed.

People who know little more about autism than that it involves difficulty with empathy can be forgiven for assuming that the way to address J's mischief is to tell him how much it upsets people. So again and again we hear well-meaning friends or relatives telling him, or telling us to tell him, how "it really hurts my feelings when you do that." But anyone who spends even a few hours trying to understand him, assuming that their empathy skills equal or exceed his, quickly realizes that this strategy is, as the behaviorist say, "reinforcing" rather than "aversive." In other words, it makes J more rather than less likely to repeat his behavior. And, in fact, those who have carried on the most with J about how upset he makes them feel are the most likely to be repeated targets of his mischief.

My advice to all who deal with J is to minimize all clues about their reactions (J already knows all he needs to know about these!), and instead to tell him in a quiet, deadpan voice about the kinds of consequences that actually upset him--especially the more intrinsic consequences, like the priviledges that get withheld when people no longer trust him, no longer want to help him or play with him, or (especially for those who own ceiling fans or Wiis) no longer want to invite him into their houses.

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