By Dan Coulter
Does your child know you believe in him, even when you’re correcting him? Without meaning to, many of us give our children with Asperger Syndrome reason to question their worth in our eyes.
Comedian Jeff Dunham, who does not have Asperger Syndrome, honed his ventriloquist act for years to get a spot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For comedians, this was the door to big-time success.
Finally, he got his break. After doing his act on the Tonight Show, Johnny motioned for Jeff to join him and sidekick Ed McMahon to visit. At the time, McMahon was a spokesperson for the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, which sent out a lot of mailings. Jeff’s curmudgeonly ventriloquist dummy, Walter, turned to Ed and said, “Stop sending me all your d--n mail!” This broke up Johnny and Ed and capped a great performance with thunderous applause. Walter also frequently invited people to visit the devil, using more direct wording.
Jeff’s first call to celebrate after his Tonight Show appearance was to the people he was closest to in the world: his parents. He got his mom and dad on the phone and said, “Well, what do you think?” There was silence and he thought he’d been cut off. Finally, his mom said, “You know, we don’t approve of that kind of language.”
Expecting excitement and congratulations, Jeff was devastated that his mother’s only response was to criticize him for having Walter use two four-letter words commonly heard on TV at the time. He said he had to go and hung up.
Jeff’s mother loved him deeply and didn’t intend to hurt him. Imagine how he would have felt if she’d said, “Oh Jeff, you were wonderful! The audience gave you so much applause and Johnny invited you over to sit with him! Your dad and I are so proud!”
If she felt she had to mention it, she could have added, “We were a little shocked by those swear words, do you really have to use them?” But how much better not to say anything negative in the first phone call her son made to celebrate his success.
After Jeff’s mother thought about what she’d said, she apologized. In an interview, she said something like, “We just don’t realize how easily what we say can hurt our children.”
This is not to suggest we need to praise everything our children do or avoid correcting them. But we may need to put things in context. We know our criticism is prompted by love and concern. But if we don’t express that, it can seem to a child that a critical comment is calling his whole existence a failure. And it can have a much bigger impact on a child with Asperger Syndrome, who tends to live in the moment, than it had on an adult Jeff Dunham.
One technique you might try is sandwiching criticism between two slices of positive reinforcement. “Your dad and I think it’s great that you get enthusiastic when you see new things, but you need to ask permission to pick things up when we’re visiting in someone’s home. That way, you’re complimenting them that they have interesting things -- and finding out before you touch something if it’s fragile and might break. That will make you a great guest!”
Our goal is to make sure that no matter what we’re saying to correct a child, he also hears that we believe in his worth, and his ultimate ability to succeed. Pausing to think before we speak can help us find words that show criticism and love can go hand in hand.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the author of ten DVDs about Asperger Syndrome and autism, including, “Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills,” and “Asperger Syndrome for Dads.” You can find more articles on his website at coultervideo.com.
© Dan Coulter 2011 All Rights Reserved Used by Permission