Tuesday, December 28, 2010


A few years ago my son, Carl and his friend Charlie, who has Asperger's syndrome, asked for permission to go to the bamboo forest with a group of kids the same age. They were all working on building a fort. The bamboo forest was a small patch of woods that separated our subdivision from the next one over. There was a significant amount of bamboo growing there so the kids named it the bamboo forest.

Charlie's mother and I sat down to have a relaxing conversation over diet cokes and snacks. We were thrilled that the boys were off playing and having a good time so we could visit and enjoy each other's company. Unfortunately, our bliss was short-lived.

The boys burst through the back door. We knew something was wrong. Carl was clearly angry and annoyed with Charlie. Carl's face was bright red and he was sputtering and growling, 'Charlie! What the crap?? Argh!!!!!!' Carl growls like a dog when he is angry. We don't know why. He has done it since he was a baby.

Charlie was saying nothing and we could not tell by his facial expression or lack thereof what he was feeling. So we simultaneously asked: 'What's wrong?' Carl was the one to respond. He was still worked up so he yelled his answer.

'Charlie picked up an axe and said he was going to kill himself! The girls started screaming and crying and ran home to tell their moms. And the guys didn't know what to do. Except Hunter started preaching to him and told him if he killed himself he would have to go to Hell. So we came home.' Carl then turned to Charlie and snarled: 'Charlie! Why do you have to act like such a freak?' Carl then stomped outside and slammed the kitchen door.

One of the older boys came to the house to make sure everything was OK. I asked him what had happened and his story was similar to Carl's but the frustration was replaced with concern. We also learned that the ax was actually a very small hatchet that the older boy was using to cut some wood for the construction of the fort. This was a group of very nice, well intentioned kids but somehow something had still gone terribly wrong. We needed to find out why.

I sat down with Charlie and explained that he was not in trouble and that we were not angry with him. We needed him to tell us what had happened. We then embarked on a lengthy question and answer session that went as follows: I asked the questions and Charlie provided these answers.

Q: What happened?
A: They wouldn't leave me alone.
Q: Who wouldn't leave you alone?
A: Everybody.
Q: What were they doing?
A: They just wouldn't leave me alone.
Q: What were they doing to you?
A: Nothing.
Q: Were they touching you?
A: No.
Q: Were they talking to you?
A: No.
Q: Then what do you mean they wouldn't leave you alone?
A: I don't know. They just wouldn't leave me alone.
We were not making much progress because Charlie appeared to be contradicting himself. On one hand, he stated that the kids wouldn't leave him alone, yet he claimed that they were not touching him or talking to him. So what do we do now?


1.    We could tell Charlie he was being ridiculous. The kids weren't doing anything to him and hand him back the ax and send him out to play. At this point we might pull something a little stronger than diet coke out of the fridge and continue with our previous conversation.
2.    We could give Charlie a snack, brainstorm with each other for a few minutes, then continue our investigation to find the real cause for Charlie's erratic behaviour.

We bravely chose to forge on and went straight for option 2. For every behaviour, there is a cause. We had to find the cause for the anxiety that drove him to such an extreme behaviour. We had to find the 'because'.

I continued to ask questions but started in a different place this time. Apparently I wasn't asking the right type of questions the first time around.

Q: How many kids were with you in the bamboo forest?
A: Seven or eight.
Q: How many kids do you feel comfortable hanging out with at one time?
A: Two. Maybe three.
Q: So do you think there were to many kids around for you to feel comfortable?
A: Yes.
Q: So it made you feel like they wouldn't leave you alone?
A: I think so.
Q: OK. So let's think of a better way to handle that situation. What could you have done instead of picking up the hatchet?
A: I'm not sure.
Q: OK. What if you went to Carl and said, There are too many people here. Let's go back to the house. Do you think that would work?
A: Yeah. I guess so.
Q: OK. Will you try that the next time there are too many people around for you to be comfortable?
A: Yeah

It took some digging but we finally unearthed the root of the problem. There were too many kids around for Charlie to feel comfortable. He was planning to hang out with Carl, but there were several other 'unexpected' kids there. This caused anxiety. He felt crowded and nervous. In an attempt to relieve the anxiety he ended up scaring the other kids.

How many times have you heard a child ask his mother 'Why?' And the frustrated mother say: 'Because I said so!' We have heard it. Some of us have said it. We are now going to give new meaning to the age old phrase Why?  Because I said so... When your child makes a mistake socially or exhibits inappropriate behaviour you need to continue asking questions until you find the real reason for the behaviour.

When looking for the cause for the behaviour, or the 'because', you need to look at the events directly leading up to the behaviour. To find out what was happening just before the behaviour occurred, you have to ask some questions. If you hit a dead end, ask another question. Keep asking questions until you can determine the most likely cause for the behaviour.

Here is an example using the story that we just discussed about the group of kids in the bamboo forest.

Q. Why did you say you were going to kill yourself?
A. They wouldn't leave me alone.   (This gives us a little information)
Q. Who wouldn't leave you alone?
A. Everybody (a little more information)
Q. What were they doing?
A. They just wouldn't leave me alone. (This is a dead end)
Q. What were they doing to you?
A. Nothing (dead end)
Q. Were they touching you?
A. No. (dead end)
Q. Were they talking to you? 
A. No. (dead end)
Q. Then what do you mean they wouldn't leave you alone?
A. I don't know. (dead end)
Q. How many kids were with you?
A. Seven or eight (Useful information)
Q. How many kids do you feel comfortable with?
A. Two. Maybe Three. (now we're getting somewhere)
Q. So do you think there were too many kids around for you to feel comfortable?
A. Yes. (BINGO!)

So there you have it. We finally sorted out what the real problem was. We had to ask ten different questions to get the answer. Of course it won't always take ten questions. Sometimes, it will be less or it may take more. There is no magic formula. But we have to remember that the child isn't evading the issue by forcing us to ask so many questions. He is truly unable to identify and express what the problem is until you ask him the right types of questions.

WHY?   There were too many kids.
BECAUSE    He picked up an axe and threatened to kill himself.
I SAID SO...... Next time you are feeling uncomfortable, you could tell Carl and ask him to come back to the house with you.

The WHY represents the series of questions that you ask and then the answer to those questions. If you are not sure what questions to ask remember your basic question words: WHY, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHO, HOW. Use the question words to formulate as many questions as are needed. The BECAUSE represents the behavior. The I SAID SO....represents the alternative action that you suggest to your child to replace the inappropriate behaviour that he chose.

You can use this method to determine the cause of the behaviour in almost any situation. Unless you can accurately identify the reason behind the behaviour, you won't be able to help him find a more appropriate way of dealing with the situation in the future.  Kids with ASD usually have a logical reason for pretty much everything they do. We just don't always understand what that reason is. You need to prioritize what you are spending time questioning and investigating. You won't find an answer to everything. And there are some things that you can't change. As they say, you have to pick your battles.

If your child insists on using exactly seven napkins each time he eats a meal, but you feel that is wasteful, look at the big picture. First, are there issues that need to be dealt with that are more important? If yes, focus on those. Second, at least he is using napkins instead of his clothing or the tablecloth. It may be in everyone's best interest to stock up on cheap napkins and let it go.

You aren't going to, nor would you want to, change who your child is. But hopefully you will be able to help him be happy, comfortable and able to function in society to the best of his abilities. That is the ultimate goal.

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