Meet Charles. He is a kindergarten student who moved here from another state with a preschool diagnosis and special education label of autism. Times have changed, so if he arrived today, he might be labeled as having a pervasive developmental disorder. Anyway, Charles was a challenge to his excellent teacher. He ran up the slide while everyone else went down. Literally and figuratively. He had great academic skills but his social interactions were a disaster. If he had been the only kid at any classroom center, things would have gone well. Same for recess. Charles was oblivious to social norms if they interfered with his personal goals. If he saw something he wanted, he would take it. He bit other kids if they objected to his claim of ownership. As the year progressed and our social skills work made a dent, he dropped the physical contact and substituted trickery and threats to his repertoire.
Some people think that all kids with his disability don’t really care about making friends, but that isn’t true. Charles wanted friends quite badly, no matter how often he failed. He also wanted to please his teachers, no matter how often he failed. My task, over the next 5 years, was to help Charles function successfully in school. But school was a foreign land for Charles, with its own language and customs.
My first step was to develop a positive relationship with Charles. You have a huge advantage with any difficult kid if this part comes naturally. I found it easy to connect and empathize with this super smart kid and his deeply self-centered world view. It’s not that he was selfish; Charles simply saw everything through his lens and none other. Charles was assigned to social skills groups for life. I also set up a contract to reward pro-social behavior. Charles’ parents were a great support for that effort, because I couldn’t find anything that Charles really wanted to earn at school.
As Charles began to decipher the social code, he continued to work it to his advantage. Initially, he had to learn how to respond when other kids “pushed his buttons,” but after a while, Charles became masterful at getting others riled up. When he wasn’t included in activities, he retaliated by teasing kids. He translated any kind of attention into being cool, a first step towards friendship. And then he discovered that most powerful of all weapons: pushing teachers’ buttons. I worked tirelessly to keep up with his adaptations on the theme of being noticed and liked. Our role plays shifted to the creation of his own plays; he became a director and had the opportunity to orchestrate others (although the kids took turns being director). Our contracts shifted to appropriate interactions with teachers. I was his safe haven in school, a part of his plan to cool off before rejoining the group. In an effort to salvage his shrinking self-confidence (masked by sarcasm), I made him a tutor for a couple of my groups with younger students. Charles absolutely flourished in that role. It was a perfect strategy for him. The helpful, tender side of this difficult kid could blossom as he listened to students read, became our tech specialist, and touched the hearts of little kids who needed a big buddy. A slightly awkward big buddy.
Uh-oh, a personal/professional issue: As I mentioned, Charles had become an expert at making annoying and sarcastic comments to his teachers. There were some teachers who could help him save face, smile at his humor, and see the heart of a child who wanted to be accepted. But there were others who took it as a personal challenge, a coup d’etat in their kingdom. My bias is evident, I know. I loved that kid and wanted everyone to see his humor, his shy smile, his gentleness. I failed to maintain an effective working relationship with one of Charles’ teachers. In my defense, I thought her sarcastic comments were hilarious, too. As she recounted her interactions with Charles, I thought she was being funny. In fact, she was livid. Perhaps I worked so well with Charles because I share some of his idiosyncrasies and difficulties reading social cues. It was not my finest professional moment, although I did work hard to repair our working relationship. Ultimately, I concluded that I hadn’t been empathetic enough towards that teacher. And I was reminded that everyone does not like me. (Shocking, I know.)
Charles is a successful college student today, despite his sometimes disastrous navigation through elementary and middle school terrain.