Disclaimer: As per usual, this post is completely unedited. And I’m tired. So it is likely hard to follow and doesn’t make sense. And I realize that I say that all the time but this time it REALLY is a mess. Like, for real. And it’s hard topic and post to write about coherently because it involves so much dialogue and inner thoughts. So, apologies in advance. But, hopefully the content and the ideas behind it come through.
One (of about a billion) things I LOVE about my job is that we deal with anything and everything. When situations arise, as they do with the kids we work with, we problem solve, and address immediately. And we’re lucky to be able to do that, in an environment that solely focuses on stress management, social competency, and self-awareness, without the academic demands. But more on that another time.
So when it came to my attention that staff members had overheard their pre-teen male (ASD) campers making jokes about rape and sex, we acted quick. That day I spoke to my boss, who is a clinician, who spoke to several other colleagues of ours, she got back to me, and I created a Social Thinking lesson based on another lesson from a colleague to do with the groups. The very next day, conversations were had with all of the participants and I did two groups on that topic.
I don’t tend to talk about specific things I do with clients/students/campers in therapy or groups, but I felt really proud of this lesson and got a lot of good feedback from parents, staff, and most importantly, the campers themselves. So, I will share.
I’ve done the lesson so far with two groups. To frame this: Both groups are five or six pre-teen or teenagers, one group is all boys and one group is all girls. All of the campers have social cognitive/competency deficits, and most of them have an Aspergers, ASD, or related diagnosis.
We began with a discussion about what humor is. That was easy for them. I then took out my whiteboard and drew two columns, “Positive” and “Negative”. I explained that there can be positive and negative effects of humor, based on how it’s used, what the topic is, and who the joke is shared with. I was SO impressed at how quickly they thought of things. “Positive” effects that they thought of included: people will like you; make friends; get out of an awkward situation; avoid dealing with something hard; and “Negative” effects included: people think you’re a bully, people not wanting to be around you, getting in trouble with the law, getting suspended or expelled, getting a bad reputation. This was with pretty much no prompting. They had SO much to say.
After we had flushed out that discussion, I introduced the idea of “deadly jokes.” The concept being, that there are certain topics that if joked about, almost always can have negative effects with friends, family members, teachers, colleagues, etc. I told them there were at least 7, and challenged them to come up with them. The boys group immediately came up with race/religion/nationality and sexual orientation. The girls instantly talked about disorder/disability, mental health, and sex. Overall, between both groups, our list included:race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, disorder/disability, mental health conditions, coworkers/colleagues/teachers/students, physical looks, violent crimes. Again – this was with almost no prompting.
During the boys group, one of the guys said, “I know those are jokes that certain people would find offensive. But I would never joke about the topic that the person found offensive.” So we had a big conversation about perspective taking and theory of mind – that you can’t KNOW what a person is dealing with, you can’t KNOW that offends a person unless you know them inside and out – and even then, you can’t be sure. I got some rigidity and push-back, so we went through each category. “Can you ALWAYS know someone’s religion based on looking at them? Can you ALWAYS know someone’s sexual orientation by looking at them?” (by the way – that answer that I got was ‘yes, sometimes’ so we had a conversation about stereotypes and how they are often based in fact but can’t be our sole piece of information). We talked about things you can know by looking at a person and things that might offend them that are “invisible,” that you would never know otherwise. They were very interested in the idea that jokes could ultimately involve the police or authorities, and one of them brought up what would happen if you joked about a bomb at an airport. Another boy responded, “But you’d be joking!” So – another conversation about perspective taking, how a bystander or official wouldn’t KNOW you were joking, and there are protocols they must follow.
And then I brought up rape. Because that’s where this all stemmed from. The interesting thing? When I asked, “What about joking about rape?” they ALL vehemently shook their heads and said, “No no no! You can’t joke about that!!” but when I then follow up with, “Okay. Who knows what rape is?” not a single one of them knew.
And that’s why we do these lessons. The things our kids say – it’s not that we let them get away with it, or make excuses, but so often they just don’t know. Some of the boys admitted they thought rape and sex were the same thing. Some said they heard of it and knew it was bad but didn’t know what it was. So we talked about it. We talked about why you can’t joke about it. And they all left with an understanding.
The girls group was different. One girl brought up how friends joke with each other about things that others couldn’t joke about – like girls saying to each other, “Omg, you’re such a bitch” can be joking and harmless or harmful depending on the relationship. Another girl referenced “Mean Girls” and how they call each other “sluts.” A third girl said that she would be really upset if anyone made a joke about mental health conditions. And a fourth girl shook her head and said she wouldn’t care about that, but if anyone joked about learning disabilities she would rip their head off. Again, a conversation about differences, how one size does not fit all, how each person is different. The girls role-played what they could do if they overheard jokes like those, if they bothered them, or if they didn’t. We talked about how it’s okay to not laugh at a joke, even if everyone else is.
These are things our kids don’t know. These are things that if they aren’t taught, they won’t learn. And saying to them, “We don’t say that!” or “That’s inappropriate!” isn’t enough – because they don’t know WHY. It’s meaningless and unclear to them. We have to clarify. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if we want to maintain innocence. We have to. For their sake.