“Mummy, I’m bad”

When Edward was little it seemed that he was constantly getting told off by most people he came into contact with, certainly by Nick and I and his older sister, Leila. Back then, we didn’t know that he was autistic and I think we would have been more patient with him had we known. He was forever at the receiving end of “don’t do that”, “stop it”, “be quiet”, “sit down” , “calm down” and so on.

His behaviour was often inappropriate compared to other children the same age and so he got frequent feedback that he was doing things wrong.

When I picked him up from his first full day at preschool the super experienced teacher said,  “Edward has settled in ok today but I have to say that he is the most assertive child I have ever met”. Curious and a little disconcerted I asked for more information. It transpired that Edward had very quickly found the large wooden building bricks and had spent his entire time at preschool playing with them. He must have viewed the bricks as his own as he had defended them like a bear defends its young, shoving and shouting at anyone who dared to try and take them away from him. To him they were his bricks and he needed them, every single one.  Taking turns and sharing didn’t exactly come easily to Edward but he got there in the end. His love of wooden blocks has never really passed, considerable hours have been devoted to the stacking and rearranging of these wonderful items – here’s one of his creations from a few years ago.

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I used to dread picking Edward up from school throughout his reception year; his teacher would invariably want to have a word with me. On one of these awful occasions, when the teacher was telling me how badly Edward had behaved, Edward started humming a happy little tune whilst running his hand up and down the teachers back. In that moment it dawned on me that in addition to helping Edward learn how to improve his behaviour at school I was going to have to train him in how to respond when being told off by a teacher.

Knowing how to behave appropriately whilst being told off must surely be part of the essential school survival kit. Most kids simply know that they need to look solemn and get their “I’m taking this seriously and I’m sorry for what I have done” face on. No one teaches them this: they just know what to do. Autistic kids are likely to have trouble picking up these untaught social conventions, and so they may have absolutely no idea how to respond appropriately to a teacher who is telling them off.

In our family the “being told off” game was birthed when Edward was still in reception – I would  impersonate his teacher telling him off (which he actually found quite funny) and his job was to respond by 1. Standing still. 2. Looking down at the ground 3. Keeping his hands down and possibly most importantly 4. Keeping quiet.  Please be assured that we managed to keep this game fun and Edward was always up for playing it.

One day I discovered a piece of paper in Edward’s bedroom and I realised  that all the negative feedback he was receiving, day in day out, was taking a toll on his self-esteem. He was seven years old. On the paper he had drawn a single line with the word “good” written at one end and the word “bad” at the other. Above the word “good” I saw he had written “mummy”, which made me feel ridiculously smug for a short moment. The rest of the family names were written fairly close together at the good end, although not necessarily in the order I would have predicted.  When I noticed that Edward had written his own name directly above the word “bad”, miles away from the rest of the family, I felt so sad. I had a chat with him and told him he wasn’t bad but I could see that my words were just bouncing off him like rain on stoney ground.

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Nick came home from work and I showed him the piece of paper. He didn’t try and chat with Edward. He simply got another four sheets of paper and selotaped them to the first one. He crossed out the original “bad”; extended the line so that it went across all four sheets and at the very end of that long line he rewrote the word “bad”. He left all of our names exactly where Edward had written them and quietly, without any fuss, placed the paper on the mantelpiece.

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After a while Edward came in and took a long look at the revised version of his work. He didn’t say anything but I could see him visibly relax as if a weight had lifted.

Sometimes visual communication can get to the heart of the matter in a way that words cannot.

A year later Edward was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The understanding that came with the diagnosis helped Edward to see himself in a different light. He wasn’t bad, he was autistic. His self esteem had taken a wobble but his diagnosis helped him get back on track.

 

Diary of an imperfect mum

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24 thoughts on ““Mummy, I’m bad”

  1. That’s genius! – well done Nick!

  2. 🙂 another great story well told

  3. thats amazing. My son has aspergers too and often describes himself as bad or naughty – his teacher has often mentioned to me she thinks he has low self esteem. So we do our best to praise him – maybe I should come up with some kind of image for him. #ablogginggoodtime

    • I guess praise only works if the recipient believes it to be true. If you think of an image I’d love to know what worked. I hope as your son gets older and understands more about his AS and how it affects him, he will become more gentle and kind to himself. Thanks for connecting via #ablogginggoodtime

  4. Oh god this made me cry! I think your husband is amazing. In my opinion all comments/recommendations made should focus on the behaviour not the child so they don’t feel bad. My son always laughed when told off and he still does sometimes. Thank you for linking up to #ablogginggoodtime 🎉

  5. I have tears in my eyes now. Wonderful job. As adults we rely on language so much but it doesn’t always work. My son was quite troubled by something traumatic that happened and it wasn’t until I decided to act it out again with teddies taking it through to the safe ending that he got over it. Great job.

  6. Well done, Nick!

  7. Wow this is such an interesting insight. It is really sad to think that your son saw himself as bad. He may not have eva totally understood it but children attach labels to themselves. My 18month old tells me when she is being naughty by simply saying ‘naughty’ but my husband has told me she has learnt this because I myself am labelling her. I am going to try not to call her naughty or tell her she has done something naughty. I found what your husband drew very clever and a good way of explaining it to an older child.

    Amina xx |www.AliandHer.com

    #ablogginggoodtime

    • Thanks for your comment Amina – I think the language we use, even around very young children, will influence how they view themselves. Thanks for connecting via #abloggingggodtime

  8. I love this so much (tear) – you are all amazing. Thanks for linking on #SpectrumSunday, hope to see you again this weekend

  9. This made me tear up a little – I see so much of my boy. It seems like it was handled so perfectly. I have just written a post about my fears about my son being judged as ‘bad’. Will be posting tomorrow. Thanks so much for linking with #SpectrumSunday

  10. It’s taken me a while to get round to reading this but I’m so glad I did! I’ll admit I’ve welled up a little. Tyger often asks me if he’s a good boy and I think it shows how anxious he is about being ‘bad’, which upsets me. I love the way the graph was handled by Nick.

    #SpectrumSunday

  11. Oh I love this, it has actually brought a tear to my eye. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most impactful x

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