Monday, February 10, 2014

Are kids with 'behaviours' bad?

The other night I woke with a vivid memory.

I was in junior high taking band class. 

Because I didn't step up quickly when the horn instruments were handed out, I ended up playing the oboe. 

The oboe is a woodwind instrument that looks like a clarinet but has a long, double reed. In the Middle Ages it was played by huntsmen and shepherds. It has an unusual, haunting sound.

You can imagine what it was like to hear a group of students play a trumpet or french horn or oboe for the first time.

Our music teacher was kind, exuberant and patient. In time we made progress.

But one day something upset him. I don't remember what it was. Perhaps one of the students purposefully played out of key, or did something to grandstand.

I started to laugh, and I couldn't stop.

The teacher reprimanded me.

I was not a student who got in trouble.

I earnestly wanted to stop laughing, but I became nervous. Very, very nervous.

Now the class was silent and everyone was staring at me.

"Louise, you're being incredibly disrespectful," the teacher said.

"I'm sorry," I said, but giggles continued to splutter out of my mouth.

"Shhh!" whispered the other oboe player.

I was now red with embarrassment, but I couldn't stop.

"Louise!" bellowed the teacher. "That's enough!"

He thought I was defying him. He thought I was laughing on purpose.

I think the reason this memory came to me was because it shows how easy it is to attribute malice to behaviour that is actually prompted by anxiety.

My son has compulsive behaviours that emerge when he's anxious. He knows he's not supposed to do what he's doing, but he gets stuck in repetition. 

I think our world is most unaccepting of difference when it involves behaviour. We're most uptight about how people act, more than we are even about a person's abilities or how they look. 

It reminds me of a study published in Autism that looked at parenting stress in two groups: one of mothers of preschoolers with autism and the other of mothers of preschoolers with developmental delay. The study found that challenging behaviour was more stressful than a child's need for greater physical care, such as feeding, dressing and toileting.

People have greater compassion for parents who have to help their child with everyday activities other kids have mastered than for parents who are supporting a child who doesn't "fit" social norms.


Sympathy with the helpless giggling fit---I'll bet a lot of us have been there.

To your other point, I think people like to have the space to, essentially, not react to people who are outside a norm. Any norm. "Behavior" triggers reaction, whether overt or stifled. And that perceived demand on attention can trigger resentment.

Such a great point, Louise, about the anxiety. And it may be other reasons in other kids, for instance, sensory needs. I think the only way to get through it is to educate people and calmly explain "my child is doing this because" or "when ___ my child feels ____ and does ____" because many people simply don't know! When they know, they understand. If not, they're jerks!

While I can intellectually understand than a kid with a disability that manifests as behavior is not being "bad" or acting with any kind of malice, it is really, really hard to not attribute the kid's actions to malice.

My daughter has a classmate, B, who has autism and Tourette's. B yells "expletive! expletive! Fatty Patty!" At my girl an average of 17 times per day (his aide thoughtfully keeps track). She (understandably) hates it, he (understandably) isn't doing it on purpose. There is ONE elementary school with ONE Grade 3 class in the very, very small town in which we live. B will be my girl's classmate until 2019, when she starts high school.

It's awful. Awful for my kid (who copes with more grace than I'd be capable of), awful for B (whose verbal tics are involuntary but who is excluded from pretty much all social events, including my kid's birthday party) and just unfixable.