Today when I picked Evie up from school, her para educator said that Evie had “flopped” when they entered the grocery store on her community outing. Evie’s para is new (to her) this year. We had an interesting conversation about the incident which I think reflects a common problem in communicating with Autistic people.
Her para indicated that Evie doesn’t flop in the other grocery store that they go to.
I thought for a moment and said, that the grocery store they went to today is quite a bit brighter. Meaning there are tons more fluorescent lights. I explained that it was likely a sensory/neurological thing.
That Evie was communicating, “I can’t.”
Her para was very receptive to this explanation and communicated that she hadn’t thought about this as a possibility. I am very grateful that she didn’t insist on writing the “flop” off to as a bratty protestation behavior as some educators have been prone to do in the past.
I explained to her that sometimes, it is pretty clear when Evie is communicating displeasure.
For instance, sometimes she will request ice cream. If I tell her, “no” and offer her another cold choice like ice or a popsicle , sometimes she will “flop” in front of the freezer. She currently does not have access to communication robust enough to argue like a speaking child might. “Why not Mom? It isn’t fair. I really want ice cream” etc. Her “flop” in this case, likely serves as that argument.
However, most of her flops communicate something else entirely.
They communicate, “I can’t” or “This hurts” or “This doesn’t feel good to my body.”
Like I suspect was case in the grocery store today.
In my experience, educators are trained to overlook these communication possibilities. Everything is a “protestation behavior.”
Autistic children aren’t trusted to say what they are and ARE NOT able to do.
The, “I can’t” can be especially hard to recognize because it isn’t static. One day Evie might be able to go into that grocery store. Another day, she might be tired, overstimulated, etc. and just “can’t.”
Evie doesn’t do much flopping when she is with me. Usually, in fact, it is of the protestation variety (I believe it is healthy and appropriate for her to test boundaries and debate my, “no,” periodically so I am actually happy to see her do so).
I believe that there are multiple reasons that I see less flopping of the, “I can’t,” variety.
1. I read this really great piece written by Kassiane (an Autistic adult) about part of presuming competence being not just about what she can do.
“When I tell you I cannot do something, presume that I am competent to understand my own limitations. I am not being lazy. I am not manipulating others into doing things for me. I have legitimate support needs. I have workarounds for most of the things I listed above. Slow, ponderous, time and spoon consuming workarounds, but workarounds nonetheless. But the truth of the matter is there are things I cannot do and I know that I cannot do them.”
I know Evie well enough–spend enough time with her– to pick up on her other “I can’t” communication before she gets to the flop phase. Chances are, I would have picked up on the signs that Evie couldn’t deal with the grocery store before we got in and as such, I we wouldn’t have gone in. I’m her mom, so a lot of that is also probably intuitive.
2. I think it takes a long time to get to the place where reading the “I can’t” communication comes somewhat naturally. As her mom, I’ve had the pleasure of spending most of her life with her.
3. I trust Evie to make “I can’t” decisions. Evie trusts me to honor those decisions. As such, I think she pushes her own envelope when she is with me at times. Probably because she knows that the moment she communicates, “I can’t” I will likely understand and swiftly respond.
4. At home, there is a great deal less pressure on Evie. We are more relaxed. Schedules are flexible. Etc. So she is less likely to become over stimulated or fatigued than when she is at school. In short, the environment is completely different.
Autistic kids are human. They are capable of being grumpy. Having bad days. Testing boundaries. Being stubborn for the sake of it. Of course they are.
But it doesn’t happen, nearly, to the degree that educators and parents are trained to believe it does.
Making erroneous assumptions about communication is dangerous. More importantly, perhaps, it erodes the possibility of building and/or maintaining trusting relationships which can have dire consequences for the child and for the educator/parent/who ever.
“I can’t” is a survival instinct. Working to extinguish an Autistic child’s “I can’t” is a threat to his/her well-being.