Never has there been a more challenging time to teach my 25 year-old, fairly independent, daughter on the spectrum how to communicate politely AND effectively with the neurotypical world than NOW. Like many young adults on the spectrum, Samantha sometimes struggles with modulating her emotions and the words she chooses to express her feelings. Anger and frustration are especially challenging to express appropriately (even more so for a young woman). Most upsetting and infuriating to Samantha is when someone “shushes” her or criticizes her behavior. This week my daughter called me from the street on the verge of tears to report that an old woman on the bus had been “stalking her.”
Why? Apparently, Samantha had been talking to a friend on her cell phone on the bus, and an older woman was giving her “harsh, dirty looks” because her voice was too loud. My daughter—who is not skilled with non-verbal cues—had followed my rule of NOT making eye contact or engaging with strangers. After years of (successfully!) teaching Samantha to always make eye contact when talking to people, I also taught her there were exceptions to the rule. Obvious exceptions were strangers, ESPECIALLY those travelling on public transportation. Ever since Samantha was in high school, I’ve wanted her to enjoy the same freedom and independence as her neurotypical twin brother, while still keeping her safe. But as all autism parents know, there will always be situations—gray areas—we can’t foresee, when the rules (and exceptions to the rules) don’t quite apply.
My daughter’s predicament on (and off) the bus is a perfect example. Samantha might have been talking a bit louder than she should. A neurotypical woman might have noticed the old woman giving her a dirty look and lowered her voice. Samantha admitted to me she was confused, alarmed and (finally) resentful, so she ignored the woman. There is currently NO rule stating that cell phone use on a bus is prohibited. (If there was such a rule, Samantha would rigidly and dutifully follow it as she does in some doctor’s offices). Angry at being ignored, the old woman followed Samantha off the bus and down the street, reprimanding her for talking too loudly (or too long?) Feeling threatened and defensive, Samantha’s replied: “Back the f*** off.” The woman then told my daughter she was calling the police….
Granted, my daughter’s reply was rude and far from the ideal response. From now on I have instructed her to limit phone conversations on the bus and try to speak quietly because other people aren’t interested in her life and might be disturbed. But calling the police? That’s truly extreme.
Because she’s crazy? I wondered. Because she has nothing going on in her own life? Samantha tends to be effusive and enthusiastic when talking to friends, so maybe the old lady was jealous?
Here’s what I said out loud. “You made her angry because you ignored her, and then you answered her rudely. Next time, leave out the curse word and just say ‘leave me alone’ and repeat it until the person backs off. That way other strangers will want to protect you, and maybe call the police on your behalf if the stalker perseveres. Stalking is a crime. Talking on the phone on the bus isn’t.”
Teaching a person with autism how to communicate and self-advocate appropriately is difficult in the best of times (which are NOT now). Often Samantha will ask me to “role model” what she should say in a given situation. Clearly, I’ll need to be a role model for my daughter for the rest of my life in order to help her achieve greater independence, find (and keep a job) and also stay safe. These days I’m lucky that my daughter has no interest in reading newspapers or watching television.
Samantha is probably one of the few people on the planet who did not watch either of the presidential debates. Otherwise how could I POSSIBLY explain Donald Trump’s crude remarks about women and his feeling entitled to sexually assault them? (His words are both reprehensible and inexplicable to ALL women with and without disabilities). I would also have to offer my daughter reasons why Trump is allowed to lie about the birthplace of our current president, insult a disabled journalist, demean the family of a war hero, rant racist slurs about Mexicans, Afro-Americans (and whoever/whatever he doesn’t like) and still run for president of the United States. Nobody has ever threatened the Donald with calling the police; and many seemingly sane, neurotypical citizens STILL plan to vote for him.
If my daughter paid attention to any of the news about the uniquely unfathomable, three ring circus that our 2016 election has become, I would probably not live long enough to break down the tone and meaning of words used by both candidates. (To be fair, I’d have to define “deplorable” and “irredeemable” and explain why Hillary used those words to describe some of Trump’s supporters). Samantha likes complicated concepts broken down into “bite sized” pieces, so she can process them. Abstract “how” and “why” questions can sometimes be difficult, but I’m almost always able to break them down for her. But not now, not this year.