I have done taped interviews with parents from time to time, asking them after a year or so, what they have learned. I learn a great deal from these interviews. This morning, in our clinic waiting room, I was reminded of a particular interview. It was an interview where a mother told me that the most important thing she had learned was that teaching is not telling. I had not said this, at least not in these words so I was glad she went on to explain what she meant. She said that in her childhood, she saw adults tell kids what to do. She had learned that good kids did what their parents said. Good parents told their kids how to behave. Her intention was to be a good parent and to have good kids and her husband was right on board with this. So, they were nearly in despair when I first met them because their seven year old son ignored, disobeyed, and argued with them about nearly everything. They felt like bad parents with a bad child (whom they adored none-the-less.)
This mom was shocked when she truly began to understand that in order to teach her son to behave more appropriately, she had to show him, step-by-step how to behave. Likewise, she had to show him any new skill because he never learned new skills without visual demonstrations or some kind of visual support. She said her parents had never done this with her, rather they had just told her what to do and she had done it. Spanking might have been mentioned occasionally. She was shocked that she could not parent in the same way with her son and expect the same results. But she came to believe that her son really could not do what she told him to do, simply because she told him. This is the nature of the receptive language disorder most common in Autism Spectrum Disorders and in my experience, it is a very hard thing for parents to believe. It is really hard to believe, this mother said, when your child appears to understand language. Her son could talk, although when you listened closely, he was restricted in what he said, mostly to memorized language from books or movies but also many memorized argument phrases. Their son, like most the kids I see, used his memory to guide his behavior. He did what he had done before or what he saw done, not what he was told to do.
As she looked back on our year together, this mother remembered how hard it was to ignore the arguing routine that their son had perfected and respond to him with, Let me show you, just watch. They learned to move across the room to stand next to their son and demonstrate what they wanted him to do without saying a word in some cases. They also made lists for him (he could read and used written language quite well to guide his own behavior). They wrote stories and showed him pictures of what they wanted. If I had known how well video modeling worked, they would have made videos to teach him new behavior and new skills. These strategies were successful enough to be convincing but nothing was a quick miracle solution. Their son had seven years of coping by refusal under his belt. Over time, their willingness to show as a teaching strategy rather than tell as a teaching strategy resulted in less refusal and less arguments and more and more learning. Their understanding of their son changed dramatically. Their understanding of themselves as inexplicably bad parents changed as well.
As this mom, explained, we learn our parenting strategies early and usually by watching our own parents. In fact, we unconsciously imitate parenting behaviors even if we don't intend to do so, as when I say things that sound exactly like things my mother said--same words, same tone, probably the same knowing look on my face that drove me nuts when I was sixteen. I don't have autism, so I understood social hierarchies as a teenager and waited until I was a mother and had a teenage daughter before I imitated my mother's adult lecturing a teenager tone of voice and words. Kids with autism are much more likely to imitate the dramatic and powerful sounding language as soon as they hear it. Thus explains, the little girl in my clinic this week, who, when her brother told her he'd be right back, replied like a little queen ordering her servant around You will say, I will be right back, ma'am. Her brother grinned and told us that Mom's trying to teach her to be polite. Demonstrating behavior to a child with autism works even when you don't want it to.
The most effective teaching really is demonstrating, showing, modeling. Children, all children, but especially children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, will learn best by watching and imitating. At one level, parents know this but they don't always know how to use this principle. I work in a play-based clinic and parents watch or participate in every session. We play with kids in order to teach them new communication skills and it clearly works. Yet, I watch parents come into our waiting room, where we put out new and interesting toys every week and rarely do they play with their child while waiting for a therapy session. Most parents, if they interact at all with their child and the toys will slip into the role of director or corrector or tester. They do not sit on the floor with the toys and play but rather watch from the side to see that their child does not make too big a mess or get hurt or behave selfishly with another child. They might tell their child a few things about the toys and test vocabulary knowledge by asking things like What is this called? and What color is this? Parents behave this way because they long to be good parents and have good children. Telling is teaching in the minds of many adults because they saw their own parents fulfilling the teaching role in this way.
I was watching a new parent in our clinic interact with her daughter in the waiting room and starting to form an intervention plan this morning. This is when I remembered that parent interview where the mom said Teaching is not Telling. I knew that this would be an important new concept as I watched mother and daughter together. The mother had told me last week that the goals for her daughter were to 1) learn to play with other children 2) not be so bossy with everyone. This morning, the mother was sitting off to the side and asking her daughter questions about each toy or telling her daughter where to put each toy. Her tone was socially appropriate for a mother but would sound very bossy if her daughter imitated the tone with another child. Her daughter, although reluctantly compliant with the activity was not learning to play because what they were doing together was not playful. I knew, as I watched, that I will be gently asking this mom to rethink her role as parent, at least in regard to play and get on the floor and show her daughter how to play, how to be cooperative, how to share control--all the things she wants her daughter to learn. She has been telling her daughter long enough, now it is time for her to teach her daughter. Wish me luck. This is always a hard sell.