Respectful Engagement

Respect.  I think about this word a great deal.  There are things I do, things I think in any given moment are examples of me teaching respect and yet in the teaching I am not modeling the respect I am trying to teach.  Here’s an example of what I mean –  (this example is fairly mundane, but it serves my purpose because it’s something that most of us can relate to.)

Let’s say Emma and I are in a new place.   Somewhere, perhaps like the place we recently went to give a talk on Autism Acceptance, where most or all of the people are strangers.  As we enter the room I notice someone I do know and they walk over to say hello.  My upbringing dictates that I introduce this person to my husband and daughter.  I do this by saying, “Hello _______, this is my husband, Richard, and my daughter, Emma.”  The person nods and says hello, maybe they even extend their hand.  My husband without thinking, says something along the lines of “Hello _______, it’s nice to meet you.”  Maybe they shake hands.  My daughter turns away saying nothing.  I am aware that this is not the conventional way (polite) to greet someone so I, without thinking, direct her, “Emma say hello to _________.”

I know enough not to ask her to touch the other person, even if they’ve extended their hand, but I forget that there may be a good reason for her non-greeting.  Perhaps the lights are too bright, or all these strangers are too much, perhaps she is overwhelmed, or the noise is making it difficult for her to concentrate on any one thing.  Perhaps she senses this person is not someone she gets a good vibe from, perhaps the person is standing too close to her.   Regardless of whether I know what could be causing her not to say hello, demanding that she do so, is not the best thing for me to do.

Instead, I might lean down and whisper in her ear, “Do you want to try saying hello to _____?”  If she does decide she’d like to and can, fine and if she cannot, for whatever reason, then that’s fine too.  But before I say something like this I will want to have done a lesson plan around “social niceties” or the things people say to each other and why they do so.  This is the ideal.  However this is not what I always do, because I forget, but these are the little things I constantly think about.  How can I parent better?  How could I have approached that situation more respectfully?  How can I use this as a teaching moment, not just for my daughter, but for myself?

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that kindness, directed toward myself and others is the single best way most of us learn.  When someone yells at me, I don’t learn, in fact, I shut down.  Even if the person does not yell, but criticizes me, scolds me, directs me to do something without explanation, I feel myself becoming self-conscious or worse, shutting down.  I close in on myself.  I can’t hear what the other person is saying.  I become engaged in an internal battle.  When someone is respectful and kind, I am open and much more likely to listen to them.

People say things like – “oh but that takes such patience,” or “who has the time to do all that?”  I understand.  But I know that the other way, while easy and perhaps quick, is nothing more than a quick fix, if that.  The person may say the words I’ve just directed them to say, but the next time I will go through the same process.  But there’s an even more important piece to all of this, because one can argue, who cares about social convention?  Why should any of us care?  Why should we say hello to one another?  None of this matters.  And I agree, none of this is really the point, the bigger point is that I want my children to understand that we live in a world filled with other people who may or may not share their neurology and that many of those people when met for the first time may offer their hand, if in the United States, and say hello.  I want my children to not be put off by this, but know that they have the option to say hello if they are able to, or not and that I will be respectful of them no matter what their response is.

Directing my daughter to say words that I give her, is not being respectful of her and it also is not presuming competence.  When I give her words to say, I am allowing my issues around social convention to take precedence over respect for my daughter and her sensitivities to her environment.  I want to do better than that.

*I purposely have used the present tense, as this is something I continue to explore and am trying to do things differently.  This is very much a work in progress!

Dressed for spring rain - April 8th, 2014

Dressed for spring rain – April 8th, 2014

22 responses to “Respectful Engagement

  1. These are the exact feelings my aspie son was conveying to me last night as I was asking him why he was sad. After 7 months he is still not comfortable with his teacher. Since I had just turned in an educational needs form I asked him what it was he didn’t like so I could make sure I had covered that on the form. He conveyed that even though she didn’t yell, he feels like her direction is often in the form of commands and demands. You pretty much summarize his feelings here: “Even if the person does not yell, but criticizes me, scolds me, directs me to do something without explanation, I feel myself becoming self-conscious or worse, shutting down. I close in on myself. I can’t hear what the other person is saying. I become engaged in an internal battle. When someone is respectful and kind, I am open and much more likely to listen to them.” When asked what he likes he said a teacher who is loving and caring. Kindness goes a long way and makes a world of difference in how these kids experience the world.

  2. Beautifully wise.

  3. Ariane, thank you for writing this. I can relate and often struggle with the same. The request to say hi after introduction has been kind of an automatic for me with all of the kids . It immediately feels wrong, for the reasons you explain so well . I know how disrespectful that the the conversation scripts ( hi , I’m -. How are you? …)one particular SLP used were to H and to me. But I slip into the , say hi , to avoid that moment of awkwardness for me and the other person- totally not fair to H. I have spoken with H about this and he asked me “Why is it important to you? ” Certainly my issues with feeling awkward for a second are not as important as respecting him. My own issues can get in the way 🙂

    • “The request to say hi after introduction has been kind of an automatic for me with all of the kids.” Me too. I am now committed to saying it only to my child in a whisper, and to rephrase the “demand” as an honest question where their answer is one I then acknowledge and respect. But interestingly, despite my awareness of this issue and wanting to do it “right,” just the other day I did it again. Clearly this will take some practice!

  4. I would be curious to know how Emma would like things to be handled in those situations. Would she like a “reminder” to say hi? Or would she like you to tell the other person something during the times she is not able to say hello?

    • This was my first thought too. Sometimes I appreciate a gentle discreet prompt because I’m overwhelmed and having trouble remembering what I’d like to do under ideal conditions. In other situations, though, being prompted annoys the heck out of me and is embarrassing.

    • Great question! I will ask her. *See? This is such a great example of the kinds of things I’m talking about. You ask this question, which when I read it, I think, well that’s an obvious question, why didn’t I think to do that?*

    • I have asked Emma what she prefers and she told me she likes it best if I prompt her, but do so very quietly so that only she can hear me. She wrote, “you have to whisper it is best.” She says it’s embarrassing to be prompted in front of the other person in a voice loud enough that they can also hear. She says it often embarrasses the other person too. She told me she knows this because she is usually aware of their emotions when they are standing there.

  5. sophiestrains

    I’d also be curious what the alternative would be that would be respectful to the autistic person, as well as the other person, who might have grown up at the time when such pleasantries were taken as token behaviour. I also prompt all my children to “say hello to such and such” mainly because I think it is rude to ignore someone who just said hello (all 4 of my kids need the prompts otherwise they’re likely to stare blankly at the person). Sophie being nonverbal, usually gives a fleeting glance and a shy smile as a greeting- she seems to enjoy it and I thought it was respectful for all of us to include her equally. After all, wouldn’t it be more rude, to prompt the other children and NOT her? If she doesn’t look at the person, we don’t press the issue, but I do always offer her the opportunity to say hello. Because I always think, what if she DOES want to and her motor planning or initiative prevents her to do so without the prompt? Sorry for the long comment you gave me food for thought 🙂

    • I love the “shy smile” and most people would appreciate that, I should think. Also, I agree, it isn’t that I think one shouldn’t say anything, it’s more the way I’ve been doing it (in front of the other person in a voice that they can hear, telling my child what to say, etc) that I realized might be felt as shaming and that’s something I really, really do not want to do.

  6. One of the many things I find so interesting about our journey with Emma, is that I’m forced to reexamine all the social conventions I was taught (and taught to comply with) as a young person. I have deeply ingrained issues with authority figures and “the rules” (legal, social, political). What I consider “ethical, responsible and compassionate behavior” is the best I can strive for and model for my children.

    Lately, I’ve been trying to practice “the art of friendliness.” When I’m mindful about whether my words and deeds are “friendly” it becomes much easier to observe all the conditioned behaviors I have that are obstacles to friendliness (or “lovingkindness” in Buddhist parlance):

    Impatience, intolerance, judgement, criticism, anger, resentment, contempt, spite, selfishness, pride, grandiosity, superiority, insecurity, envy, greed, lust, laziness and control.

    What “I get right” is a much smaller percentage compared to what I get wrong. What I get “wrong” is a great teacher–if I’m aware I’m doing it. When I’m not aware, and it doesn’t lead to better behavior, I have learned nothing.

  7. I have found a small wave of the hand can suffice as acknowledgement and also forestalls handshake attempts. Though I am usually fine with saying hello and shaking hands, often I am not and a wave is a good way around that.

    • Oh I love the “small wave of the hand”!! That’s wonderful. And yes, actually something I’ve done when meeting someone and for whatever reason I couldn’t speak, or it wasn’t appropriate to do so. This is something I will also ask Emma as an alternative to “saying” something more specific.

  8. Marie Brennan

    I have this same problem but much worse, because My daughter is an adult and I know that over the years I have been treating her like a child. It’s very hard to turn it all around in a day. We have never really encouraged her to shake hands with anyone, due to her personal space issues, but over the years she has learned to answer the question, “How are you?” With “Fine.” said in a complete monotone. On occasion when I act annoyed or demanding she will sometimes say, “I love you too.” I know I must drive her nuts sometimes, because she knows I know she is very aware, and still, because of some of her behaviors, I’m likely to say, “Give me a break!” We are both a work in progress.

    • Marie – I completely agree with you! Just speaking for myself, I absolutely cannot “turn it all around in a day” either! I have to continue to show up for this stuff on a daily basis and hope I do better over the long term.

      • Marie Brennan

        Thanks. We have to be patient with ourselves as well as with our kids. They are an amazing example of patience I think.

  9. Brilliant. Wonderful. I feel so sorry for children when an adult tells them to say thank you in front of the person they want them to thank.This dynamic models for the child how to tell somebody else what to do in an abrupt and insensitive manner, which is ironically quite socially inappropriate.

  10. You’re not alone in this my mom often directs me to greet people even though she knows i’m perfectly capable of doing so without being told.

  11. I think as time goes by, or maybe it’s just me, lol, some people are more sensitive to others communication styles. When I say hi to a child, I do not expect them to say hi back, and when their parents prompt them to respond to me, I’m happy to say oh it’s cool, we may get to chatting later! For my own children I will often say X isn’t in a chatting mood right now…and I then move the conversation on for them. But it does take awareness…and practice. I love your post and will share it, so more folk develop the awareness of communicating!

  12. Joy on a Shoestring

    Reblogged this on Joy on a Shoestring and commented:
    We are so often guilty of this. We expect the girls to behave in ways that are socially acceptable, never taking into account the herculean effort that requires. We condemn their “failure”, yet fail to praise or even acknowledge their efforts – or reservations.
    We can do so much better.

  13. Thank you for not putting words in her mouth, so that her beautiful brain can come out through her medium of choice.

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