Last Sunday night, we were invited to dinner at a friend’s house. I reluctantly accepted the invitation after she assured me that there was nothing Gray could do that would mess up her house. I respectfully disagreed, but I thanked her for believing in us and told her we would come. In reality, I was thrilled with the invitation. As I have mentioned before, we are rarely invited as a group to friends’ houses. Over the years, I have declined enough offers and looked significantly disheveled after the offers we did accept that people have just given up putting me in that position. Also, as our children get older, people have a lower tolerance for destruction, screaming and poop accidents. It’s just easier to have people at my house, but truthfully, we don’t do that terribly often either.
I felt so hopeful that the evening would go well. In my fantasy world, where we have a normal life, there are lots of evenings and weekends where we just hang out with other families and chat while the kids play. I really had let go of that until Hope came along. In reality, there is not anything that Hope can do for Gray once we are at someone’s house. She’s there to walk him in and out, but after that, he is on his own. I think the biggest change has been in my attitude towards Gray and what I can expect of him.
Temple Grandin (one of the country’s most accomplished and celebrated people with autism) has often said that she credits her mother with her success as an adult. She says that good manners were required at her house growing up. Of course, Gray is more severely affected than Ms. Grandin. I have always told myself that good manners were way beyond what I could expect of Gray. After all, how do you teach a typical child manners? Through explanation, reminders, scolding and discipline. Gray doesn’t respond to any of those things. How to teach him something as gentile as good manners when he can’t understand the concept?
Through Gray’s wonderful behavioral therapists, I have learned that there is another way: shaping behavior. Unfortunately, it takes exponentally longer than just teaching a typical child, it still works. It just takes mountains of time and patience. Because you cannot explain things to Gray or give him detailed instructions, you have to just take him through the motions of any given task or scenario hundreds of times until he learns that pattern. For example, many small children like to get up and wander away from the table during meals. Gray is no exception…except his wandering looks more like crazy running and jumping and squealing. Getting Gray to learn to sit at the table has taken about 2 years of concentrated effort. Everyone who works with Gray finds an opportunity to make him sit at the table to eat. Through a combination of preventing him from getting up and providing immediate rewards for staying seated, his behavior has been shaped so that he can now sit at the table at home for meals.
Hope has strengthened this behavior by letting us carry it out into the community. Now, Gray is able to generalize all meals to a table. By witnessing Gray’s ability to respond to this kind of behavior shaping, I have grown more confident in my ability to make good manners a priority. Some people might ask me why I care about something as shallow as manners when we have so many larger deficits to conquer. I would respond that friends, family and the general public will be a lot more understanding and willing to accommodate a kid like Gray if he has good manners.
The evening at our friend’s house went relatively well. Fortunately, all guests present were well aware of Gray’s “quirks” and no one got too alarmed when he pinched a couple of people and pulled someone’s hair. Most people would consider that disastrous, but I tried to look at all of the areas where he has grown. With a coffee table full of books and a side table full of pretty collectibles, Gray was able to leave the living room relatively undisturbed. Although, he kept circling the appetizer table taking bites out of crackers and returning them to the serving dish, when the dinner was served, he walked over to the dining table, selected a seat, pulled out the chair and sat down. Although I had to bring a dinner from home that I knew he would like, he stayed in his seat and quietly participated in dinner with everyone else. It is notable to point out that I was able to finish my entire dinner and carry on a conversation without having to get up once or apologize for any crazy behavior.
Was it perfect? No. Was it all that I hoped it would be? Yes. I see now that Gray has made huge strides in civility and his ability to display his new skills outside of our home. Now we just need a few hundred dinner invitations to practice. Any takers???