The Concept of “Being Good”

So much of my life as a mom seems to revolve around rewards and punishments for preferred behaviors. Being constantly bombarded by my little beggars with the phrases, “Can we have? Can we go? I want?” and so on. When what they are asking for is not something extreme like a pony, but instead something reasonable, often times they will hear my response of “If you are good.” Seems simple enough. Probably a general phrase that moms have been using for generations. For my son with autism, living by reward-based systems seems to work very well as a motivator for many of our daily tasks, but I still found myself struggling often with his overall behavior. Then one day, a few years back, someone mentioned a very helpful tip that changed my mindset altogether. Don’t just tell him to “be good”.

The idea of “good” to many kids with autism, especially for those with language issues or delays, is fairly abstract. Good is a social construct, and by definition these kiddos struggle with the realm of the social. I may very well be able to tell my 5-year-old daughter to behave or be good and she could fully understand what I am asking of her, but my son, at that same age of 5, may not know. He needs directives that are more concrete.

Her advice made me think back to a story that my mom had told me about my older brother Bradley, who is also on the spectrum. When Bradley was in school and they were putting on a class program, Bradley kept singing through all the parts, including the solos. When Bradley would start singing during the solo, the teacher would tell Bradley to “Stop singing”. So, Bradley changed to not singing at all. The teacher reached out to my mom frustrated about the situation, and my mom told her that Bradley was doing what she asked him to do. The teacher was a bit stunned and said, “I didn’t mean for him to stop singing all together”. My mom asked the teacher if there was another child, that Bradley knew, that sang during the parts with only full class participation and not the solo as well. The teacher said “Yes”. So, my mom replied, “Then tell Bradley to sing when that boy sings”. From then on, the teacher had no problems. I am obviously giving this example to emphasize just how literal you may need to be, and how sometimes you have to think outside the box in the words you actually say when talking with kids on the spectrum.  

Taking all the advice at hand, I had to adjust what I was saying to Damion as well. Instead of asking Damion to “behave” or “be good”, I shifted and started to say things like, “No hitting, if you hit, then no swimming”. It was a much more specific command. Sort of like a new math problem I had to remember in my head. Don’t do x (bad behavior), if you do x, then you don’t get y (preferred activity). He understands fully the word no. He understands what hitting is. Telling him directly the action that he is not supposed to do gives him his directive in a way that he can understand and process.

It helps to be extremely literal, just like my mom was with Bradley. With age, I do think he is getting better at understanding concepts like good and bad, and I believe with time he will be able to fully understand, but I plan to continue to help him until then. We talk often about “good” and “bad” behaviors but I still do my best to be specific in categorizing them in the moment.  

For kids who learn better with pictures or social stories I imagine there are plenty of ways to go over these items to help them to grasp the concepts as well. I could very easily see a way to sort pictures of good or bad behaviors. I could also see reward boards, or warning boards to remind them of what they will get or lose with these various behaviors. This is something I have personally considered, but have not yet tried yet myself. Just like many people I have a lot of great ideas I would like to try, but then life, or just my basic onset of procrastination sets in and I don’t physically do the thing I talk about doing. But nevertheless, a potentially good idea for those momma’s who are more on top of it than me!

This whole thing is all still a work in progress for me. There are plenty of times I find myself still saying “be good”. It can be hard to reset your own way of thinking too, especially when you are working to actually teach the things that most kids just tend to pick up naturally. But by constantly reminding myself that Damion processes things differently and adjusting myself accordingly, it makes our interactions better. It is not a perfect system on his end either. He still has plenty of problem behaviors we are working though, and occasionally, even new ones he picks up just to keep me on my toes, I guess. By telling him in specific terms what I want from him, it helps him understand. And when he actually understands my request, I have a better chance of getting what I am asking for. Communication is important, and delivery can sometimes be the key to successful communication with kids on the autism spectrum.