"I don't care" and autism

Michelle Garcia Winner

"I don't care!" is a heavy topic to cover in a blog but here is my shot at it:

Many kids say "I don't care," "I don't want friends," "I don't like people," etc. I have heard these lines from elementary kids through adolescents. I rarely hear these from adults.

Here is my spin on this. Our kids struggle to do something that appears so easy and seamless to everyone else. Those that are "higher functioning" begin to notice that they are not fitting in, but they don't know how to make it right. At times our students have sat in "friendship groups" that didn't teach them what they needed to know, or the message was that "using good social skills" means you have friends but they sat in the group and they still don't have friends. They start to build walls around themselves and then fortresses: they need to protect themselves from thinking that they lack worth since they lack friendships. (Friendships do in fact help to validate our existence.)

Many of our kids live in fear that they may be "invisible" to all those that surround them across the school day. Some of them will act out seeking negative attention: insulting others, using offensive humor, etc. At least when they do that they get attention from the people they worried did not notice them. It is not the kind of attention most of us like, but they feel at least someone noticed them.

Some of your kids will spin off into other mental health-related problems of anxiety and depression. These have their own unique challenges and the world of counseling is just learning the unique issues related to anxiety for those who are bright but have social learning issues.

Here is my approach:

1. When a kid says "I don't care" and the like and I know they have a social learning problem, I listen to their words but I don't believe them. I know this is where they are now.

2. The focus of a social thinking group cannot be about making friends, being a friend, hanging out with friends. Instead the focus has to be on what it means to have social ability and on what social thinking is. How does walking down a school hall relate to thinking about what people are thinking? What do they think about others? (Read my blog on inside-out teaching). What types of thoughts do they have? Who at school (teacher, student, janitor, etc.) do they like the most and why? You will find that the person they like the most is the person that makes them feel the best about themselves. Help them to learn what they require from others along these lines. Don't start your treatment by focusing on how they can do things to make others feel good. They aren't there yet!!

3. If I have them in a group, I observe them in that group and note how they go about getting attention from others. Is it always negative? Do they try to use humor? If so, these are moments where the student is trying to relate. Later, when I get their trust, I will point out to them the use of humor is a great way to relate to people and it is cool to have the ability to make others laugh during the right time and place.

4. I meet with them individually or at the end of the group to touch base and let them know I am trying to "watch their back" and understand their frustration. But I don't give into their thinking. Often I echo their thinking and let them know that I think it must "suck" to feel like they are alone when they are surrounded by people. They often start to open up about their thoughts about how people perceive them. They don't really want to be perceived the way they are; they just feel pushed into that corner. If you have a counselor available (assuming you are not one), this would be a good person to also bring on the team.

5. Many times we have to remove a kid from the group for a while so they get some time to just learn about the social world and how they are part of it (like it or not!), away from a group of their peers. Keep in mind that being part of a group means you are always in performance mode. A number of our kids can act like real jerks when feeling they have to be "cool" with their peers, but are sweethearts when you can just take some time to talk to them away from the group. Once you get their trust, they will do more to work to conform in the group. But they are still not there yet!

6. Ultimately, the objective is to help them reshape their views on the social world in ways they can understand, with a person they feel is trying to understand them. All that being said, this does not mean I make the world easy for them. Once I have them working with me, I challenge their ideas and still hold them accountable to how they are making me feel, etc.

None of this is easy. It took years for some our kids to get there. We often focused so much on academic learning, we did not give them enough direct instruction and rewards for learning to work in a group. We adults fell flat in being able to provide them with information they needed to understand how to be part of the world. Some of our kids were bullied, some of them were bullies.

To work with them well you have to use as much art as science, or perhaps even more art than science when teaching them about social-emotional relationships. Start by putting yourself in their shoes. I have worked with many challenging kids and have only rarely met a student who is as "mean" or as "rude" as he or she appears to the masses.

Most importantly, these kids need to feel you are listening to them. Not completely agreeing with their views of the world but respecting how truly hard it is to participate with ease with others. Adolescence is a time when we begin to define ourselves as individuals. It is a hard developmental age for almost everyone. Imagine how hard it is for a kid who feels that people outside of his family do not seek him or her out, i.e., as if they don't care about them.

Final thought: if they are mean to you, don't personalize it. Realize it is their first defense against more possibly bad social experiences.

Courtesy of SocialThinking.com

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