Invisible Harm – Laugh Out Loud

Featured image is a Family Rules poster in cream with various fonts in black. Poster reads: FAMILY RULES. Keep your promises. Share. Think of others before yourself. Say I love you. Listen to your parents. Do your best. Say Please and Thank You. Always tell the truth. Laugh at yourself. Hug often. Use kind words. Love eachother. Photo credit: ND Strupler

I have an issue with your interior decorating. Not the colours, not the fabrics. I don’t care whether you have solid oak or IKEA flat packs. I don’t care if your furniture is obsessively neat or the mismatched product of a lot of visits to the charity shop. I don’t even particularly mind if it’s cluttered and a bit messy. What bothers me is one particular, quite popular decoration that could be silently harming your kids.

The wall decal, poster, shingle, or whatever, labelled “Family Rules”. As my wonderful friend Caffeinated Otter puts it, “Trite Sh*te”. You might be wondering how it harms your kids, so lets take a look. Not all of these posters are the same, so I’m going to pick a few common phrases that appear on them and explain exactly what’s wrong with them. I’m going to start with the one that alerted us to the problem; “Laugh Out Loud”.

Squeak, ever since he was about four and a half, has done this strange over-the-top, performative laugh. We thought it was just a thing he did, like the way that when I try to make “normal” facial expressions as responses to things, they look strained an insincere. It was completely out of the blue that after one of his piercingly loud and exaggerated laughs, he turned to Otter and said “The Family Rules say to laugh loud”. A surreptitious investigation when dropping him off let Otter catch a glimpse of the poster – one of those popular wall decals.

Not a big issue, you might think, but look at this the way a small autistic child would. We take things very literally, and we’re often very rules-oriented. Family Rules therefore are Rules, especially if they’re written up in a prominent place. They get into the kid’s mind every time they see them, and there are connotations that might not occur to a non-autistic person. If they’re family rules, then what happens if you break them? Perhaps you’re not part of the family anymore. Can you imagine the stress an idea like that, even half-formed and unarticulated, can cause to a small child?

We’ve always had trouble communicating with Squeak – not because he lacks language skills, he’s very articulate – but because he wants to give the right answer all the time.

(Bear with me, please. This is a big, complicated topic and it might take me a while to talk all the way round it.)

Imagine a typical conversation one might have with their bright, articulate schoolchild. You might ask how school is going. With Squeak, the answer you get depends entirely on what cues you give when asking the question. For example: “How’s school, are you enjoying it?” will produce a performatively happy “yes, it’s good!” but no elaboration about what exactly is good about it, no mention of favourite subjects or friends etc. “How’s school?” on its own will produce “It’s OK”, again, no elaboration, but this time a perfectly neutral response to a neutral question. If you ask a follow up question like “I heard it was a bit difficult now that you have classes?”, you’ll get a very performative sad face and a glum “yeah”, even after previously being told everything’s wonderful.

Carefully asking the question so as to encourage him to pick an adjective on his own, without reading any cues into it, is very interesting. I know I’ve said it before but Squeak’s a bright kid, with no problems communicating accurately and articulately. He’ll pick a random adjective that doesn’t mean anything to the context of the question. When I asked, he used the word “reactive”. I was confused, so I told him gently that I didn’t quite understand and could he tell me what he means when he says “reactive”, or maybe find a different word to help me understand. At this point he clammed up, and went very quiet and sad.

If it was just this one occurrence, I might be tempted to think he was sad because I didn’t understand, but this shutting down when asked a question that there isn’t an obvious “right” answer to has been going on for as long as I’ve known him. He’s never been able to suspend his fear of getting it “wrong” and just guess things, and it’s stressed him to the point of tears being asked to just have a go. I’ve never met a kid so scared of trying before. Seriously, it’s one of the things I love most about kids is that they don’t fear failure – that’s something they’re taught as they grow up. At 3 he knew all his letter sounds, the alphabet in order, and could read and write his name. We figured he had all the foundations he needed for simple phonics, so at 4 we gave them a try. He could identify that A was “ah” and T was “tuh” and was very keen to do so, but when we modelled how to “smoosh the sounds together”, he was unwilling to even try. He burst into tears and refused to talk to anyone for an hour.

What makes such a small child, so normally full of adventure and the willingness to just have a go, so afraid of getting the wrong answer? I can only think that he must have had harsh reactions in the past to getting it wrong. He hadn’t been to school yet, so I drew the conclusion that he had picked this up at home. When his mother told us she’d been “practicing letters with him”, it clicked. I know a little of the woman’s history, second-hand from Squeak’s dad. Her behaviour between Squeak’s birth and the day she took Squeak away had showed a definite pattern. He was an accessory, there for her entertainment and to gain attention. She would appear perhaps once a fortnight and offer to “babysit”, shortly get bored and park Squeak in a highchair in front of the television while she played computer games. Any milestone he met was made to be all about her. Any form of development that couldn’t be shown off wasn’t worth the time and effort, which is why he was only potty trained when a worker at the local children’s centre told her that the school would ask questions if he was still in nappies when he started in September. He picked it up fast enough, having been ready for quite some time.

So my strong suspicion is that Squeak’s reaction to questions or even a little pressure is due to being drilled intensively on topics that his mother could show off, and receiving impatience or even anger when he got the answers wrong. He struggled at school at first, refusing to read out loud to the staff, and then only in a whisper. He’s much better now, as long as we don’t ask him any questions he doesn’t know the answer to. Asking how he is will produce a random answer, and he’s developed this technique of inserting seemingly random words. I guess he figures random words nobody will understand is safer than getting the wrong answer.

So why does he default to performative happiness unless reminded that something negative happened? Simple, another one of those family rules, and probaby one that was enforced. “Be Happy”. I know firsthand how this one works, and I imagine many autistic adults can tell you the same. Our parents will reprimand us for facial expressions that don’t fit what they think we should be feeling in the moment, or for displaying emotions that don’t fit with what they want.

Learning to pass took me years of practice with a special method: every time my family went out in public when I was a child, the ride home was a lecture on my failings. I was upbraided for gait, demeanor, eye contact, manner and content of speech. The reward for perfect success was a moment of rare parental affection. – Larkin Taylor-Parkor

Our parents often fail to understand that not only do our faces not display emotions the way they expect, but also that how we feel might not be how they expect. That is, the model they have in their minds, on which “empathy” depends, is a model of a non-autistic brain. It works differently, and therefore the predictions and assumptions they make are likely to be wrong. Even well-meaning parents can end up doing this. “Don’t be sad”, “don’t look so miserable”, “what’s wrong with you?”…

Your autistic child is like a sponge, desperately trying to fit in and win your affection. If anything makes them believe that there are rules, even nonsensical ones, on how to look and feel, they will do everything they can to obey them. After all, so many rules of the non-autistic world seem nonsensical to us, it’s hard to know which ones you really mean.


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