After spending a significant amount of time with Autistic students over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn things about them I’d have never known otherwise. One of the things I’ve learned is… they can’t all be lumped into one category! They’re unique individuals whose interests, abilities, and personalities are as varied as any other group of human beings.
NOTE: This is where you call me a hypocrite because I’ve literally just written a title that lumps “Autistic kids” into one predefined group.
HEAR ME OUT.
While each Autistic kid I’ve known has been different in so many ways, there are still some characteristics of Autism itself–beautiful, wonderful, intriguing characteristics–that have to be consistent enough for their diagnosis to have been made in the first place. It’s not a checklist so much, but rather a wide array of characteristics that could turn up in any number of combinations.
My favourite analogy is this: Saying all Autistic people are the same is like saying all Sonic drinks are the same. You might know where the drink is from based on the cup it’s in, but you’ll never know which of the 1,063,953 flavour combinations is inside.
The commonalities that Autistic people share are actually pretty broad. They spider out and manifest in so many unique ways that it’s impossible to make too many generalizations unless they’re very, very open-ended.
One generalization that can be made is that Autistic children find it more difficult to interpret social cues than their neurotypical peers do. Or, if they can interpret social cues, they struggle to know what to do with those cues or how to respond to them in socially acceptable ways.
Another generalization is that they tend to have fixated interests. The problem with trying to assume you know anything about Autistic fixations, social cues, or mannerisms is that every manifestation of those generalized traits will look different.
For example, one Autistic student in my class right now asks roughly 100 times a day if he can watch the show King of Queens. He’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen about all the details of the show. However, another Autistic student in my class hardly speaks at all. And when he does, it’s often about something so random that you’d never know he was fixating at all.
Instead of thinking about one particular thing all day, he thinks about figuring things out all day long. So, to the outsider, it looks like he’s spouting off random thoughts that have popped into his head, but in reality, his brain is wandering around the room, trying to mentally take everything apart and put it back together. One minute, he’s thinking about taking apart a clock, and the next, he’s imaging the scientific dissection of a frog.
The traits manifest differently almost EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
But… after going through that WHOOOOOOOOLE explanation…. the past five years have taught me this: Many, many, many, (did I mention MANY?) Autistic kids get in trouble for arguing a lot. They argue with their teachers, their peers, their parents, the non-fiction book in their hands, the mailman who’s just trying to put the dang mail in the mailbox… anyone.
Honestly, I think the only person some of them don’t argue with is themselves.
This doesn’t mean that every argumentative kid you meet is Autistic. It also doesn’t mean that every Autistic kid you meet will be argumentative. It just means that a large percentage of the Autistic kids I’ve worked with in the past half-decade have gotten a lot of consequences for arguing.
After the first few years of seeing it, I finally figured out why they were being so argumentative.
What adults were viewing as “arguing” was really just the kid trying to make sense of their world.
It’s important to ALL kids to be able to make sense of the world around them, even if they’re neurotypical. If they don’t understand the meaning of something, they’ll twist it around until it fits into what they do know about the world. This is how kids from environments of trauma make sense of what happens to them. It’s our natural process as humans.
Kids who are Autistic have that same need to understand, but they’re also working with a black and white way of processing everything.
There’s less fluidity in how they view the world, which is part of the reason why social situations are so confusing to them. There aren’t any defined rules or unchanging patterns in socialization.
Now, think about trying to fit every single situation you encounter all day long into a little box of rules and understandings. Here’s an example.
An Autistic student knows it’s time to clean up and go to recess at 10 o’clock. One particular day, his teacher tells him it’s time to clean up at 9:42. The student “argues” in order to understand why the teacher isn’t following the rules of the classroom. He isn’t thinking about the fact that the teacher made the rules herself so she can change them if she needs to. To him, the rules are hard and fast.
And she’s breaking them.
Now he has 18 minutes that will feel completely foreign to him. He’ll argue with her, she’ll explain, he’ll keep arguing, he’ll probably get a consequence.
Maybe the next time it’s not a schedule thing. Maybe the teacher tells him not to run in the classroom, and he (or she) asks why they can’t. The teacher says, “Because it’s not safe.” Then the child says, “No, it’s not. I’ve never gotten hurt before when I’ve been running in the classroom.”
And so on and so forth.
They’re not always arguing. Sometimes they’re just trying to understand.
Have you experienced this with the Autistic kiddos you know? How do you handle it?