Arguing Autistic Style
By Consulting Clinician on April 29, 2014
Today I was going through life at my chosen pace of slightly controlled chaos management when *the text* came through from a parent saying that was what code yellow with her son and his math teacher had quickly escalated to code red. I was driving when I could hear the dings of the texts coming through so my passenger ended up reading them to me, a confused sound to his voice as he translated a parent watching a situation quickly gain negative momentum and me just listening, shaking my head as I am attempting to nativigate traffic. According to what the mother described, I figured I had between 35-40 minutes to get to where the child was while including the minutes of taking care of the business that was still on my plate (getting a rental car from the airport).
Code Red was our lingo for the severity of a given situation. The parent, when texting me for an emergency, needs to outline the who, what, where in a very simple format so that I can quickly outline a plan of action (is immediately removal important? Is my intervention necessary? Do I need to provide assistance to any of the other parties involved?) These questions are all answered in a 4 sentence text from the parent:
In math, student and teacher exchange words because he thought she was taunting him. Student has been given emergency medication. Student still at school. Everyone awaiting your arrival.
This parent and I joke about how her child has Math PTSD. He had difficulty passing classes and had poor teacher interaction or involvement, resulting in a distrust of his current math teacher in his new school. Fortunately, the teacher is open to working with an outside source regarding how to better utilize her words to make the class work for this autistic child; sadly, not every teacher is as open or willing to have someone walk in and "take over." But as this child is a good student and the teacher is a good teacher, the code red means I need to get there to translate the situation to the teacher, reframe it, solve the communication issue and then pick up the child and get him home with said child feeling better and lessons taught on both sides regarding how to better avoid the conflict.
The conflict surrounded the issue of time. While this students understands time in a numerical sense, he does not comprehend how time relates to him as an individual. For example, if you ask him how much time it will take him to do something, he does not understand amounts of time/accomplishment; if you ask him how many seconds in 20 minutes, he can tell you with accuracy but he still does not know how long it will take him to finish something because seconds and minutes have no meaning when applied to him (Case and point: at a restaurant, the server says, it will take 20 minutes for the food to arrive. He follows his watch and at 18 minutes, the food arrives. This confuses him because the server said 20. If more than 20 minutes pass, he becomes agitated because the server obviously told him incorrect information, or, a lie in his perception. In both cases, it is the server's fault although it is not. It is merely a perception of an autistic brain grasping with a concept that requires Einstienian equations to prove.
So when I sat with the teacher, I determined the difficulty that occured within their conversation- it revolved around how he was going to spend two minutes of time: finishing a word problem or relaxing. The teacher kept repeating the question, hoping for an answer; the student was confused. Two minutes to the end of class and why was the teacher asking him the same question over and over: what was he going to do with those two minutes?
Argue about the two minutes and what two minutes means. You can either think about what two minutes means, do a work problem, or read, or do any number of things. But to the student, the two minutes had no meaning except that class ended in that time. Could he have completed a math problem during that time? Maybe, but he did not know or understand that. And the teacher did not understand that he did not understand.
So while the teacher and I spoke of end of the year expectations, I also explained to her his difficulty perceiving the question of "can you finish this in two minutes," how this has no meaning in his brain, and how it confused and exasperated his difficulties with math when asked "how long will it take you to do this?" vs. "Can you work on this now?" Maybe he would not have finished it in two minutes but the argument would have been focused on "I can't finish it in time" (teaching him how to see how time and he have an interpersonal relationship) vs. "How long will it take you to do this?" (creating confusion regarding ability and self-esteem). A formal, direct question can clear up autistic confusion verses the open-ended question creating it.
The drive home was only residuals of the experience for my student. His normally easygoing and humorous demeanor was very choppy and he did not want to engage in his normal banter, and then yelled at me for not engaging in our normal banter. The confusion of the previous conservation was still living within his brain and rolling around. He was nervous about saying the wrong thing yet wishing I would say the right one. I didn't. Every question bothered him. My silence bothered him. It was a lose-lose situation for both of us.
Communication between an autistic and non-artistic individual is a dance of mood, movement, and moment. Verbal and non-verbals skills become heightened messages or are totally ignored, misinterpreted in that mind of confusion as conflicted messages. There is no use in arguing or trying to turn it into a teaching moment. In this agitated state, it is better to get him to an area that he determines as safe, and then move forward later. I got him home so that he could engage within his comfort zone.
Our next meeting is another day to see if we can once more engage and part on a positive note while the teacher understands that two minutes can mean a lifetime if it is not seen through the same eyes.