Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Group Think

So, Ethan's doing a social skills group this summer.

I'm not completely on board with the whole thing. First, the group is at the worst possible time of day (dinnertime) on the other side of Hartford (read: rush hour traffic). From the start I knew he'd have to miss at least three of the sessions due to vacation. So why'd we move ahead? I don't know. Maybe it was watching Ethan interacting with the neighbors the past month and being reminded there are so many things that just don't come naturally to him. Or maybe it was remembering that he's so good at committing certain social rules to memory, once he's learned them.

So we're back over in Glastonbury, which is interestingly the very first place Ethan ever had therapy. I can't believe it's going on five years. I'll see him in the same spot where he used to insist on playing with a certain toy, and then tantrum when he was supposed to head in for occupational therapy, and feel like that was a long, long time ago.

Watching Ethan and the other two kids in the group is telling. A person off the street might miss it. They all come in and sit down to play at the same toy (it's four-sided, and has pieces you move along paths) very nicely. The thing is, they each play with a certain part without interacting with the others, at least at first.

The other two kids in the group, a boy and a girl, are a year or two older than Ethan, which is good. This is the first time he's been put with kids who can be a bit of an example. At the same time, Ethan can hold his own with them. When I watch him walk back with the speech pathologist, I feel simultaneously proud of him and a little guilty. I wonder if we should just let him have summer. The group is kind of a pain for all of us, and when he comes out an hour later, he looks like he just wants to go home and stop working.

Another reason I was kind of on board with doing the group is because I thought this certain office was big on using the Social Thinking curriculum. This is a method of teaching I don't know a whole lot about, but I do know that it's very much about not just memorizing rules, but delving deeper and helping kids understand why they should do certain things.

Which is why when I looked over his summary paper from the session the other day, I felt a little bothered. They were talking about boundaries and giving people personal space, which is a good thing. But the whole impetus for why we should give people space and have boundaries was summed up as, "So people don't have weird thoughts about us."


I read the words on the paper, and all I could think about was this creepy training film Dan and I saw from back in the fifties. I think it was something they played in schools. It was all about how one should dress and groom themselves, so as to fit in and yes, basically, conform.

Society spends a whole lot of time trying to convince kids it's okay to be themselves, to be different, to not go along with the crowd. And yet we're telling our kids on the spectrum they must follow a certain set of rules because they don't want people to think they're weird?

News flash: it's too late for that. And honestly, who isn't a little bit weird? I'm a (not quite typical) conservative Christian in a very liberal part of the country. I'm sure people think plenty of weird thoughts about me.

I would much prefer, if we're going to give reasons for why we treat people the way we do, that we take a more "old fashioned" approach. Why not just talk about boundaries in terms of, we don't do certain things because it makes people uncomfortable or feel bad, and when we interact with people we need to care about them and treat them the way they would like to be treated, even if we don't understand it?

I was ready to throw in the towel about the class, but then the other night, tucking Ethan into bed, as we were talking about planets and space, suddenly he asked, "What IS personal space? And we got chatting about what they'd been doing in group. He told me about everyone having an invisible bubble, and when we get too close, we pop it. I could tell he liked the image. I leaned close to say something and he growled, "You popped my bubble."

He's learning something. I just want to make sure he's learning the right things. And I want the wisdom to know when the benefit of a group like this outweighs the hassle, or is worth interrupting good old-fashioned free summer time. It's a never-ending quest to get it right. Sometimes, we fail. Right now, the jury's still out. So next Monday we'll hop in the car before 5, fight traffic, and not eat dinner until 7:30. And I'll hope that it's not all so Ethan can begin a quest to do everything "right," so people don't think thoughts about him that are weird.

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