Thursday, March 5, 2009

What it means to be a friend

A year or so ago, I read a book called "The Speed of Dark," by Elizabeth Moon. The main character is an adult with autism, and at one point in the book he finds himself the victim of a man who is increasingly hostile toward him. He fails to recognize the man's true intentions, or to put the clues together to realize that this person is behind the things that are happening to him (they guy sabotages his car among other things). His other friends try to tell him to be careful around this person but he won't even consider the man as a "suspect" because he is a "friend." The man has told him he's his friend, and they actually were friends at one point in time, which means he's categorized as a "friend" and in the main character's mind, nothing can change that.

I was reminded of this story earlier this week during a discussion with Cuddlebug and Bearhug. It was nothing so serious, of course, but dh and I noticed that when they were playing outside with their friend he was being overly bossy toward them. They were working on a project, and the other boy was telling them what to do and having them do all the "work" while he did the "fun stuff."

The boys came inside talking about how their friend was "the boss" and told them everything to do. They didn't seem to mind, but we felt like he was taking advantage of them. We talked to them about the importance of taking turns so they could each have a chance to do the fun stuff, and told them not to let the other boy tell them what to do all the time. We reminded them that they don't have to do whatever he tells them (we've had that discussion before). We suggested that if the other boy gets too bossy, to come inside for a while and when he sees that acting like that will result in having to play alone, he'll learn to take turns.

Bearhug gets it. The next day, he did come back inside when he got tired of being bossed around. Cuddlebug stayed outside playing, and we saw the same pattern. Dh went outside and told them to take turns. When Cuddlebug came inside we talked about it some more. He got upset with us, told us the boy is his friend, and he likes him telling him what to do. We have spent so much time teaching the boys to take turns with others, it just kills me that he was so willing to let someone else get away with not taking turns at all. It didn't matter how we tried to explain, or how much we assured him standing up for himself was not going to make the other boy stop being his friend. We tried explaining that the way his friend was acting was NOT being a good friend.

Cuddlebug just wasn't having it, and got increasingly upset with me and dh. Unfortunately, it didn't matter how I explained it, I just wasn't getting through.

I realize I may be a bit overprotective, especially in social situations since I know that Cuddlebug in particular takes things at face value and doesn't understand the nuances of nonverbal behavior (in other words, as long as this boy is labelled as a "friend" nothing he does can be wrong, and he doesn't recognize when his friend isn't being particularly nice to him).

Bearhug is slowly starting to learn to recognize these things. At least he is open to listening when we tell him, and he internalizes the new "rules" of what to watch for. We're trying to teach both of them to recognize behavior and what it means. We spent so much time when they were younger on facial expressions and figuring out how people felt based on that (things like what does a smile mean, how does a person crying probably feel?)

They've done a good job of learning those things, and now they use that with us. For example, they'll make an exaggerated angry face when they're mad and say, "look at my face... how do you think I feel?" (lol). Now, it's the more subtle stuff that is hard, like when people pretend to be nice but what they're doing is mean. Or distinguishing between a friendly smile and a not-so-friendly smile. They see the smiling face and don't recognize when the underlying behavior contradicts that.

Cuddlebug really took offense, saying that we just didn't understand and that he liked doing all the work and watching his friend do all the fun stuff. Maybe he does but it doesn't make it right to let his friend treat him like that. And it's not even that this particular incident was so horrible, it's the precedent that it sets of letting other people take advantage of you just because they call themselves a friend. It's the principle of not doing something just because someone tells you to, but because you want to and it's the right thing to do (and if someone tells you to do something you don't want to do, or that you know you shouldn't do, say NO).

I get concerned because I have heard plenty of stories of teenagers and adults with autism being taken advantage of because they have this same difficulty. They take things at face value and they take people at their word, which can sometimes make them easy targets for people with less-than-good intentions.

Obviously this situation wasn't that - it was just a little boy who wanted to be in control of everything, who wanted to make his friends do all the work for their project while he did the fun part, and they were willing so why not? Learning to take turns and not boss your friends around is just part of growing up so I'm not saying their friend is a bad person or anything, I just saw this situation as a learning opportunity for our boys.

So, if you're still reading after all that rambling, how should I explain it next time so that Cuddlebug doesn't get upset and defensive of his friend, but rather sees the fact that his friend isn't being a good friend by acting that way and that it's ok to stand up for himself?

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Elizabeth Channel on March 6, 2009 at 9:03 PM said...

Ahh! These situations are so tough. I think we've overdone it over here to the point that now when we say something in earnest, E will ask us if we are being sarcastic. It's like he's looking for sarcasm at every turn.

Bearhug sounds like he is becoming quite intuitive though. Wonderful steps!

Anonymous said...

I'll come back if I think of anything good... Daniel isn't at the point where we can have a discussion this detailed. We're still working on the turn taking and I try to teach him to recognize how he feels when other kids don't want to share with him or how he feels when they DO share, etc so he can understand, also share and be a friend. It hurts when I see other kids not be so nice and while I don't think Daniel even knows it, I hate it. In a way I'm glad that he's not aggressive at all, but sometimes I wish that he knew how to stick up for himself too. Sorry. This was a whole love of "I know how you feel" rather than any good tips or advice. :0/

Khadra on March 10, 2009 at 11:58 AM said...

I wish I had advice for you. We are in the same predicament as you are. My daughter thinks everyone is a friend, and there is a girl at school who is being quite mean to her, but she cannot see it. She thinks she is her friend. It's awful. Both her and the other girl are only 6, but I worry about the future. She needs to learn now so that she wont be taken advantage of in the future. Now it is all about playground games, but what happens in high school?!


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I'm a mom of three boys on the autism spectrum, 11-yr-old identical twins and a 7-yr-old. My husband is a SAHD.


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