Take a kid who’s smart, add a dash of “highly focused on certain things”, a few handfuls of stubborn, a little bit of emotion control difficulty, and some “doesn’t have the social skills to figure out there are better ways of getting what he/she wants than arguing.” Mix, dress, and let sit in front of a computer for a few days. What do you get? A kid with Asperger’s/high functioning autism.
Yes, I know, a lot of kids argue with their parents, not just those who are on the spectrum. But our kids take it to another level. They are extra-good at arguing. They are smart enough to come up with good reasons why you should let them do/have what they want, they aren’t good at seeing other people’s point of view, and they are persistent enough to drive you to insanity. If you’ve got a choice between arguing with a kid with Asperger’s/HFA or a mule, pick the mule. You might not settle the argument any faster, but at least you can in good conscience swear at the mule.
But you already know this. You’ve had the arguments about what your child will eat, what he’ll wear, going to school, doing homework, playing video games and whether it makes sense for him to give up his room to Grandma when she visits (“but if she sleeps on the couch she’ll be closer to the bathroom and I can also make sure she doesn’t mess with my Legos.”)
You know your child is strong-willed. For his sake, I hope you are too.
Our kids need us to be just as stubborn as they are. Jennifer McIlwee Myers, author of “How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s” has a great way of putting it: you need to outstubborn your child. You cannot let them wear you down. She’s right. You have to be strong enough to set the rules in your house and strong enough to enforce them. If you are not the authority figure in your house, you are cheating your child.
Kids need to learn there are limits in life. They need to know that society expects certain behavior out of them. I’m not just talking about the little rules, like always use your napkin and don’t bore people by talking incessantly about light bulbs. I also mean the big stuff, the stuff that can seriously affect their lives. If kids are lucky, their parents teach them these limits. That’s the easy way. The hard way is when their parents don’t and leave their kids to deal with whatever society dishes out to those who break its rules.
For instance, if we teach our kids that they can wear us down and we’ll give in if they argue long enough, when they’re grown they’re going to have a rude awakening the first time they try it with a police officer. Mr. Officer isn’t going to throw up his hands in disgust, walk away and ignore whatever our sweet Johnny is doing. More than likely Mr. Officer is going to bonk Johnny on the head, put him in handcuffs and take him to jail.
Likewise, if we allow our kids to refuse to do or weasel out of homework and chores, they grow up thinking they don’t have to live up to their responsibilities. While that may keep the peace at home, it doesn’t do our kids any favors once they’re adults. Employees who neglect their work or whine excessively turn into ex-employees. College students who don’t do their assignments fail classes. Debts that don’t get paid can land us in a lot of trouble. In the real world, sometimes we have to do what other people tell us to, whether we like it or not.
If our kids can get what they want by being more stubborn than we are, they also don’t learn to respect other people. Why does it matter what other people want if I can just get around them? If I throw tantrums to get out of my responsibilities at home, I learn to throw fits to get what I want. If I ignore my parents when they tell me to do things, I learn that ignoring people works. If never-ending arguments eventually get me what I want, then that’s what I’ll do. If you don’t teach your child to respect you and other people, where do you think he’s going to learn it? As an adult? From the legal system after his date tells him no and he doesn’t believe her? In a bar when he argues with a big, hairy, scary dude and ends up in the hospital? Or when he lives out his adult life alone because no one can stand to be around him?
I am not saying that teaching our kids boundaries and limits is easy. It’s not easy with typical kids and it’s even harder with kids on the spectrum. It’s exhausting and it takes a really long time. Years. Not only does it mean putting up with the fallout after we tell our kids no, it also means we have to walk the tightrope between being an authority figure and a control freak. We don’t want to squash them completely. We need to allow them to make some decisions and negotiate sometimes, while at the same time retaining the ability to make no mean no – whether they argue or not, whether they pout, tantrum or try to outwait us. For their own good, we have to be the person in charge.
My solution? My kids can give me their two best reasons why they think the decision should go their way. Then I decide and explain why. If they don’t like it, they can argue all they want – quietly in their bedroom, with the door shut so I don’t have to hear them. Disrespectful behavior results in unpleasant consequences. I may not be able to take the argument out of the Aspie (or the teenager), but usually I can make the argument not worth pursuing. My solution hasn’t always been easy to implement – it took years for my kids to figure out that I meant it and more years for them to develop the self-control to avoid getting into trouble. We went through a lot of tears and a lot of notebook paper. (Fifty sentences at a time: “I will do my homework without arguing.”)
Does my solution work? I don’t know yet. I know I did not get to be the nice, sweet mommy that I had planned – the one who always lives in peace and harmony with her children. On the other hand, my kids do their homework now without me telling them to. Arguing with teachers has gone down 95%. (We’ve moved past writing sentences and are now on five paragraph essays.) And my children have discovered that at 6’3” they’re not too big to stand in the corner for time out. They argue enough with me that I know they’re not browbeaten wimps and that they’re developing along normal teenager timelines. And amidst the all the “have-to”s of life, we still have a lot of “want-to”s, hugs and good times.
Is that success? Is that good enough? I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.