Autism and unacceptable behavior

Jeff Katz


Even when Nate couldn’t control his actions, Karen and I wouldn’t tolerate it. We knew he couldn’t help himself; that was clear. However, once he settled down we made a point to explain that what he did or said was wrong and that he had to apologize to the person he’d harmed.

I do understand when parents of any challenged child let bad behavior slide. It’s the old “the kid has enough problems, why bother,” approach. But these kids do grow up and they grow up into a world where acting like a jerk isn’t glossed over, especially if the inappropriate action isn’t followed up by at least a modicum of remorse. Nate has, I’m pleased to say, become a very polite adult.

That’s not to say he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth. When he does, I make him say he’s sorry; that’s about all I can do. Am I embarrassed? Not really. Are these moments hysterically funny? Usually.

Here are a few of those moments.

On Wednesdays, Karen picks up Nate at SUNY-Cobleskill because his aide Elise goes to Albany. This week Karen was busy with a healing friend so I went instead. We headed to Wal-mart and there Nate pulled his shopping cart from the front as we travelled from aisle to aisle. At one point he nudged a woman’s cart, not hard, but enough to notice. The woman turned around. She had silvery-gray hair, though she didn’t look as old as her coloring. Nate looked at her and said, in response to the cart collision, “Sorry old lady!” The woman’s jaw dropped, but she was good-natured about it.

“Nate,” I said, “that was not cool to say! You have to call her ‘Miss’ or ‘Ma’am.’” Not cool, but funny.

I told Elise this story on Thursday, and she responded with one of her own. Elise informed me that Cobleskill’s student body is fairly obese, a shocking thing to hear from a native of Wisconsin.

In one class, a female student could barely fit into her desk chair. Nate said, loudly, “Hey, Elise, look at that fat girl!” Though the kids sitting around Nate heard his comment, the big girl was out of ear shot and her feelings were thankfully spared.

Elise told Nate he should not say things like that and he responded with his usual, “I’ll never say it again, honest I won’t.” That’s a rote comment. It means very little, though sounds sweet and sincere.

That spurred the memory of another story. A Cooperstown friend who Nate had never met was planning on dropping by. I knew this could be trouble, because my pal had a hook for a hand. What would Nate do? What would he say? I prepared him as much as I could, explaining the prosthetic, warning Nate it was impolite to stare or mention it, hoping against hope he would take this odd (for him) vision in stride.

When my friend came to the door, Nate was stunned, as if hit by a 2 X 4. He looked at the hook, then my pal’s face, then the hook, then the face, and on and on. Finally, my friend said, “Nate, it looks like Captain Hook, doesn’t it?” Nate laughed and left the room, but he was gobsmacked. He’d never seen anything like it before.

So what do I do in these situations? In this case I was fortunate; I knew the man and he took it good-naturedly. Other times, there’s nothing to do but say “sorry” and move on, keeping the giggles stifled until I’m well out of sight.

Courtesy of Mission of Complex


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