I have worked extensively with kids and teenagers on the autism spectrum. All across the spectrum. (And I do, fully, passionately, with my whole heart, believe that there is quite a spectrum — not just of autism but of “neurotypical” too — more on that in the future.) And something that has hit home to me lately is the damage that teaching “rules” can do.
Without disclosing confidential information, I will just say this: I am working with a teenager, who has Nonverbal Learning Disorder. She also has a myriad of other mental health diagnoses. Having NVLD means that some of her struggles include understanding and interpreting someone’s intent, the “why” behind their actions, etc. She is at the point where she is great in hypothetical situations, but when she’s “in the moment” it’s much harder. She has an extremely traumatic background. She brought it up the other day when we were talking about different social situations and the ways to say your own opinion (a big fear of hers is that she will offend a friend, or other person, if she shares her point of view). And she started talking about the person who had abused her, and said, “He was my [family member]. He was in charge. You have to listen to what [family members] tell you to do, so I had to go along with it.”
And it really struck me. With so many neurotypical kids, rule-following is a “must.” So throw in a few other diagnoses of trouble understanding social situations and reading intent, and knowing what to do, and it’s a mess. When she was little, just like so many other kids, she heard, “Parents make the rules,” or “You have to listen to teachers,” etc. It’s so easy to give rules like that, because they are true almost all of the time. But we HAVE to teach our kids that there are times to break rules. That, “if you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or not good, it is okay to break the rules and talk to someone else about it.”
I know this is an extreme situation, which is why it’s really upsetting me. But it applies in other ways too. With any rule. One rule is “don’t cross the street when the light is red.” Well, we also have to teach them, “But if you’re in the middle of the road when the light turns red, you can keep crossing.” We have to teach the exceptions to the rules. Which is also why I like to call them “guidelines” more than rules.