Lately I keep starting blog entries and not finishing them, so I’m going to try a new thing. From now on I’m going to give myself an hour per entry. If I’m not done in 55 minutes I’m going to spend the last 5 rushing to get to the point, and I’ll post it at an hour, done or not. Hopefully this will help me curb this annoying habit of half-written blogs in text files lol
I was in the shower today and instead of singing like I usually do my mind got stuck on sarcasm, why we use it, and how we can help autistic children (and others) understand it. Here are my thoughts…
I think we use Sarcasm, primarily, as a defense mechanism when we’re annoyed. When your child asks you for the 15th time when you’ll get there instead of ripping your (or their) hair out you just say "we’re already there, honey, can’t you tell"? I could give a ton of other examples, but the ones i could think of all followed this same basic pattern. Someone asks a stupid question, or makes a stupid statement, which we think they should already know the answer to, or we think they should know better, and instead of venting our frustration in a less-than-pretty way we pop off with a sarcastic comment.
When we use sarcasm with children it can actually be a really great teaching tool. Most people aren’t going to be sarcastic with their infants or toddlers. That’s silly, they can’t understand sarcasm, so we usually don’t bother (I imagine the same is true with non-verbal older children). Besides, your infant/toddler isn’t likely to say something stupid anyway, and if they did they’re young enough you know they wouldn’t understand it’s stupid. By the time most kids are old enough to start asking "Are we there yet?" 500 times in 10 minutes, though, or "Mom, are you going to feed us lunch today?", they’re also old enough to "get" sarcasm, or at least to start learning it. So we, probably without conscious thought, start to use it with them. We start saying things like "no, honey, I’m not going to feed you lunch, you aren’t *really* hungry anyway, are you?"… fully expecting their natural reaction to be shock, and then realization: "yes, I’m hungry! you’re just saying that, aren’t you? are we going to have lunch *soon*?"
Most kids can process two opposites well enough to realize that the mother who loves them dearly isn’t likely to just not feed them. After they get over the initial shock they think about why you’d say such a thing, and it dawns on them that if Mom loves them so much, she’s probably not going to make them starve, and they probably asked the wrong question in the first place. After enough similar instances (because kids take repetition to learn), the child eventually learns not to ask the annoying questions so often, life is less frustrating for everyone.
For autistic children, though, and children with other learning difficulties, this process doesn’t work so well. If you tell an autistic kid you aren’t going to feed him, his reaction will often be panic. He’ll be left with two opposites in his head "Mom loves me" and "Mom isn’t going to feed me lunch today". This doesn’t compute. "Maybe Mom doesn’t love me after all." "What if she doesn’t feed me supper either?" "But I AM hungry! I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t hungry!" And it can spiral from there. Mom spends a while trying to calm the child and make sure he understands that she does love him and she will feed him and she was just being "sarcastic" she didn’t mean it… eventually he calms down, but without the ability to read body language, or make the jump that explains what caused Mom to respond sarcastically, he’s left not understanding why his mother suddenly lied to him, or when it’ll happen again.
I think most parents with children on the spectrum have been through this type of situation, repeatedly. It’s not that you’re trying to annoy and confuse your children, it’s just that sarcasm is a natural response to frustration, and stopping it isn’t easy. So what should you do? I for one do not think you should train yourself not to be sarcastic.
I don’t think that helps either one of you. That child, eventually, is going to have to be let out into the world, so to speak, if he’s not already, and he will encounter sarcasm there. This is a life skill he needs, and it will help him in a lot of areas, he just needs the tools to understand it.
Most children, no matter how bad their autism or other disabilities may be, aren’t incapable of learning things, you just have to approach them right.
When you find yourself being sarcastic with your child (and if you don’t notice beforehand, his reaction will tell you you were sarcastic), after you calm him down, take the time to help him understand what happened. Explain that you were being sarcastic, define sarcasm for him again, but don’t stop there. Remind him of what he said, and explain precisely why it was frustrating to you. Explain that your reaction to that frustration was to say something you knew he should know wasn’t true, and explain that that was supposed to trigger him to think about what he asked/said and whether it was necessary. Do this every time. Eventually he’ll remember to think about what he said before panicking, and he’ll begin to internalize the concepts behind sarcasm.
It may take a while. Just like it can take a (long) while to get a child potty trained. But once your child grasps sarcasm watch out, he’ll probably use it a lot, and better than you do (lol).
If you have further thoughts on this, or you think I’m wrong, feel free to share in the comments. I’m certainly not a professional on the subject, and I’m not even a parent, but I am good at using sarcasm, and I think I understand autistic kids better than most.