If you’ve been searching for an answer that you finally possess, with whom do you share and why? Your acceptance at the table is not proof they are acknowledging you for your authentic self. Sometimes they prefer the mask.
For those who were not diagnosed when we were younger, who struggled with facets of our true selves that seemed at constant odds with the majority, and who wrestled with metaphysical questions or shrunk from the crowds, the later-in-life Autistic/Neurodivergent label was a breath of fresh air. Some of us had already mastered masking techniques to blend with our nondivergent peers and some had pursued professions which intentionally played up our uniqueness. This might have been at cost to our self-esteem, mental well-being, physical health, or financial stability. The autistic label helped us find community, inclusion, coping mechanisms, strategies, and ways to verbalize who we are, really. For me, it was the puzzle piece I’d been obsessed with finding, not a missing piece but an explanation.
I’ve identified as neurodivergent (or autistic, to match familiar vernacular) for 5 years, and in that time, I’ve seen such huge strides for those who are just like me, personally and socially. We may quibble over exactly what labels are most fitting, but it is undeniable how we’ve been benefitted and more openly free to find comfort in modern society. Women, in particular, are finding more of a community than ever before, as masked stand-offish “mean” girls come to terms with their nonconformist beings and are thereby more accepting of their nonconformist peers.
So the question then becomes, now that we carry this encompassing idea of who we are, at what point and for what reasons should we identify ourselves to others? In this second installment of Our Autistic Expression, I’ll discuss my rationalizations and the reactions I’ve received in return.
From pleasantly surprising to entirely misinformed, the responses I’ve heard have dictated the platform on which I currently stand.
Response 1: Like Minds
‘Are you like me?’
On our first date, after a few hours of an incredible, stimulating, and engaging conversation, my partner (the Scientist) and I sat with one another in awe. It was more than an instant connection — it was a mirroring energy and understanding.
“There’s one more thing I need to tell you,” the Scientist intoned. I was rapt. He could have spent the next hour explaining all of the cell organelles and their function, or describing the many burrito shops in his home town, or pitching his groundbreaking idea in materials engineering, and I would have been present for him entirely. “I’m neurodivergent and I’m different than most people.” He glanced at me sidelong awaiting my reaction, until I squealed, “Me too!”
The conversation that followed encompassed our categorical labels, the ways in which we feel different from average, and the respective searches we’d undertaken to find what fit. It bonded us in an incredibly deep way.
When we find people that we jive with, there’s a certain rhythm to the conversation and an unusually high level of acceptance for experiences and opinions. We identify because we want them to know us and interpret our intentions correctly, and in these instances, nearly always, they identify in return or reveal that they’re on a similar path.
We identify to acknowledge instantaneous acceptance among the like-minded and be known fully for who we are.
Response 2: Clarity
‘I have so many questions. Someone I know is also autistic.’
Once I’ve identified, and hear this reaction, I’m open-minded to the questions at hand. Perhaps I’ll be able to enlighten this person or help them find common ground for an extended communication with their friend or loved one. Sometimes, ‘for a friend’, I’m really just helping them make peace within themselves. With the combination of my training, passionate pursuit of the subject, clinical experience, and self-awareness, I do feel qualified to answer questions or direct the person toward the information they need.
Recently, I was approached at a pop-up show by a woman in her 50s who was very interested in the social skills-based educational resources I create and the events the Scientist and I coordinate. I explained my perspective that typical and divergent children alike are not necessarily learning social skills in a translatable, accessible way. I’m on the spectrum, I explained, so I tend to have objectively different approaches to solving problems. Her eyes lit up and she responded, “That’s wonderful. I’m dating a man who’s autistic. We’ve only been together a few months, and I’ve learned so much, but I have so many questions. He’s still learning how to communicate what he needs and I’m learning how to listen to those needs.” I encouraged her to email me, outside of the brand and the merchandise, to initiate a conversation, in case I might be able to assist her further in any way.
We identify to build community with our neurotypical peers and help them to understand the cultural transition that is occurring.
Response 3: Disbelief
‘That’s not funny, and it’s really offensive to autistic people.’
Unfortunately, the outdated and traditionalist view of autism is that akin to definitions of incapacity, inability, and unsociability. The stereotypes of an autistic person being incapable of learning complex tasks or communicating in a typical way (either ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning) have been challenging to break down. There are those who even still believe that autism should not be considered a spectrum at all, that it is a limited disability and not a wide-reaching subset of the population which requires and cultivates differences, individuals existing on the farthest points on some of the many bell curves of society’s averages. There are others who would happily put an autistic label on anyone if it meant funding their healthcare or developmental needs. The scope of misunderstanding is maddening.
When someone responds to my statement with disbelief or disgust, I do my best to maintain perspective. I always double down, explain that it was something I struggled to fully comprehend, something others noticed but couldn’t describe, a revelatory light bulb that burned brighter than nearly any other I’d experienced. “But you’re so…” something, they’ll say, and then I usually feel forced to describe my downtime and the kinds of constructs and boundaries required for me to maintain being “so…something”. I dislike being put in a position where I need to describe the downsides of metacognitive spin, catatonia, apathy, melting down, or cognitive rigidity. Even describing these things esoterically becomes a potential difficulty to surmount, but in my experience it’s the only way to inform a person that meets my truth with disbelief.
We identify to appropriately broaden the public’s understanding of autism, with knowing risk to our well-being.
Response 4: Tone Shift to Ghost
‘I don’t know what to do with that.’
A disquieting silence or physical retraction is not uncommon upon hearing me identify. The tone may shift from pity to silence, as though whatever social connection was brewing before is now not worth continuing in light of the new evidence. There have been those who could not maintain a friendship once the identity was clear, once the masks were off. It’s typically when I am at my most comfortable, most free and open in someone’s presence, that they manifest distance and disappear. I am a lot — I am challenging, driven to succeed, held together by strict guidelines I set for myself alone, and prone to using comedic banter to fill the silence. I very rarely advocate for myself with direct, social confrontation. I’m a quick study and a terrifyingly good mimic, and it’s these traits among others that seem to put people off the fastest.
In these instances, we identify to communicate unusual or extraordinary needs, feelings, or experiences, and to ask for adaptation or patience. My actions might require an explanation, and when it’s given, it’s discarded along with my friendship. A hard truth to accept is true nonetheless, and a friend is only a friend if they can befriend the you beneath the surface.
Our Autistic Expression
For some people, I suspect increasingly more people, the urge to announce their neurodivergent nature is growing. For others, I’m sure the desire to remove all labels for fear of isolating or facing the misinformed masses is prominent.
I have wavered on when to tell who what — is it something I keep secret and let them figure out? Is it something I announce after the conversation turns in that direction, or after an uncomfortable moment that was brought on because of it? What will be the social cost to identify or not identify? Do I rely on the person seeing my social posting, my brand identity, or my blog in order to understand me fully? Will knowing I’m neurodivergent change anything about our interaction for the better? I don’t know, but I am thinking about it.
In the meantime, while I’m still fitting the pieces together and understanding my own meandering, I would only ask of you compassion, for myself and others like me. If someone identifies as autistic or neurodivergent, listen to what they’re saying and consider why they’re telling you. They may still be figuring it out too.
Hope is all that’s left when you’ve tried your best and nature takes its course.
It was early morning, mid-May, on an unseasonably gray day. Sheets of rain were clattering on my car as I drove to my client’s house. The drive to M’s house was always a thoughtful one, and I was anxious about what I was going to say when I got there.
I enjoyed the in-home therapeutic sessions I did with autistic kids, without exception. I thrived in an environment that was at times improvisatory and at times highly structured, and I spent my nights and weekends devising appropriate and meaningful interventions to help them reach their goals. We always made progress together. The families I worked with looked to me in different ways — as a counselor, a teacher, a confidant, a sitter — and, following all scientific evidence, all available resources, and my body of clinical experience, I attempted to impart lessons about building relationships, enhancing quality of life, and maintaining a growth mindset.
It wasn’t just about identifying patterns, sequencing stories, or saying please. It was always about teaching exceedingly complex and particular ideas that could open new pathways of communication and understanding for them and their family.
M’s case was a particularly difficult one, which is why I was chosen by the agency to work with him and his mom, G. My experience and multidisciplinary approach, along with my patience and compassion, would be needed. G’s primary concern was that her teenaged, autistic son was missing a lot of school, “throwing tantrums” (her words) right before he had to get on the bus. I’d been working with M for a few months on creating a consistent routine, using musical cues to prompt and reinforce him through donning his shoes and jacket, and eliciting conversation about things that might happen during the day. Our efforts were variably successful — we might build a streak of eight school days, but the “tantrums” would return.
In cases like these, it was important to look at the antecedent and reinforcing behaviors — what was leading up to and what was following — M’s seemingly sudden, strong refusal to go, which, when paired with both G and M becoming agitated, then led to a meltdown.
There are myriad factors that influence every decision, action and reaction for an autistic person. These are in addition to the physiological reactions they may experience at greater or lesser magnitudes than their neurotypical counterparts, and in addition to the potential difficulties identifying or communicating their needs, preferences, and anxieties. If, like M, they struggle to verbally identify their needs, environmental controls are put in place to narrow down what may be leading to the issue at hand, in conjunction with attempting new pathways of communication and creating or enhancing a sense of self (self-awareness.)
To my most objective observations, there was one clear and unfortunate obstacle to M building a consistent routine and finding regular comfort and success with the primary objective.
G was that obstacle, the only reason the case was so difficult for me, and the cause of my concern as I drove to session that day. A parent’s impact on their child is always complicated and difficult to view objectively, but I’d already seen and heard too many markers for concern.
For all of the time I spent explaining to G that her son was capable of learning, that he had shown signs of improvement, and that progress would at the very least require her to maintain emotional stability during the transitional time, G showed very little desire to learn or adapt. She would listen raptly through my explanations, then immediately launch into an unrelated story about how difficult M could be, how he’d made a mistake earlier in the week, or how she’d had to miss work again. M and I could be having a peaceful conversation at the breakfast table, when G would enter the room, complain loudly that M “better not pull something today”, and then lay out a complicated series of punishments and prizes he could expect depending on how he acted.
It was baffling and deplorable. I struggled to steady myself as I neared the house. Five miles to go. Deep breaths. More presence of mind. It would be a difficult conversation. As a therapist, it was my job to maintain objectivity, a professional demeanor, and an emotional distance, all while advocating for M. Focus on the particulars, not the ideals. Move one tree at a time, don’t attempt to demolish the entire forest in a sweeping overaction. Four miles to go.
In some ways, G was treating her teenaged son like a forever-baby and worse. She believed he would never learn, never cease “throwing tantrums”, and never be anything less than her burden to bear. She jumped in to speak for him when he hesitated, so he often remained silent when she was around. She spoke about him in the third person while he was in the room. She refused to teach or let him learn about his changing, teenaged body, and she allowed him to cuddle beside her in her bed on a regular basis.
In other ways, G seemed to think M should act like an adult.
“He’s doing this to challenge me,” she’d say at the top of her voice, while he jumped under her covers in her bedroom to escape the bus.
“I know you know what you’re doing to me,” she’d cajole, as he lay face-down on the carpet in the foyer.
“Lori (me) is very mad at you,” she’d growl, while I stared at her incredulously, shaking my head vigorously and making x’s with my arms.
“If you don’t go to school today, I won’t let you have your iPad on Saturday, which you earned yesterday for doing such a good job, and then Lisa (sitter) will be very upset with you and she won’t take you to play basketball like I promised yesterday,” she’d threaten and bribe simultaneously.
Then, when he inevitably missed the bus, G would wring her hands and wax happily nostalgic for a time when he was smaller, easier to carry around, easier to control, and not so challenging. G knew M was listening, hiding at the top of the stairs or in the next room, but could not see that her own attitude might be creating the problem at hand, or at the very least complicating it.
On this bleak and brisk day, I was going to insist that G remove herself entirely from the situation for the foreseeable future. M was capable of waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast independently. I’d be there to help with his shoes, jacket, and getting on the bus. I rehearsed the words in my head over and over again on the drive that day.
“At this point, and given everything we’ve seen, the treatment team has decided collectively on a path moving forward.” I planned to pause here, and take a breath. Then, “To understand M’s needs and challenges while transitioning to the bus, we need you to remove yourself from the environment. You can stay in your room with the door closed, or take a walk in the neighborhood, or sit in the backyard obliviously. But under no circumstance can you continue to be present in the kitchen, foyer, or living room while M and I are in session. Mothers have a very powerful effect on their children, and it would be good to know how your presence may be influencing him.” I expected she would be distraught about this and argue, but thought I might be able to get her to commit to being absent on a trial basis to gather data.
I knew M wouldn’t automatically cease having trouble boarding the bus, but I absolutely needed to control for the most caustic and unpredictable variable in the room. I was confident that if she would allow for this change, I could begin to understand the situation.
I was shaken from my rationalizing suddenly. The black SUV several car lengths ahead on this busy, suburban street hydroplaned and skidded to a stop. Into the SUV’s driver’s side door, an American Robin (AMRO) dove with spectacular force, turning to his side at the last minute. Even with my radio on and the sound of the pelting rain on my car’s roof, I heard the collision.
Flying in the rain is particularly dangerous for birds for two reasons. Smaller birds risk trapping water among the air pockets of their feathers and contracting hypothermia. Larger birds struggle to get enough aerodynamic lift in the dense air of low-pressure systems. I suspect that this robin was suffering the latter on this rainy, spring day.
My heart was breaking. I slowly drove past the robin as he lay in the center of the road. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I knew that he could easily be crushed by someone swerving to avoid the poorly draining shoulders. One short block past, panicked, I pulled a tight U-turn. I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go back. He didn’t deserve to die in the street like that. I threw my hazards on and jumped out into the road.
Drenching in the downpour, I scooped up the robin in canvas I normally used for school supplies. The AMRO was alive, stunned but present. I wrapped him carefully, held him gingerly, and drove with one hand to the nearest side street. I snapped a quick pic and texted a friend who owned a few canaries (They did not respond in time to assist.) I’m not a veterinarian or bird expert by any means, but the Amro seemed to be alright. His feet and wings all seemed in tact and at the proper angles. Though he was stock still, his eye blinked occasionally and seemed to follow my face. With no time to take him to a hospital, I made the difficult decision to place him between a bush and a giant oak tree, nestled between the visible roots. I jumped back in my car, shaken, and dried off as I drove the last mile or so to M’s house.
I wish I could say that I successfully communicated the plan to G, but M was already beginning to make refusals when I arrived. I gathered myself, apologized for my lateness quickly, and succeeded in helping M calm from a screaming wail to a slow sob as the bus pulled away. He had chosen independently to go to his own room, rather than his mother’s bed, and I was optimistic that the sessions might be having a positive effect.
When I returned to the kitchen, G had some news. Due to M’s many absences, she’d been informed that he would have to repeat his current grade level. The school had recommended he continue attending for the remaining month or so, for stability. To minimize her stress, she whispered, she’d decided just today, just now, to remove him from school entirely and start fresh in the fall. She couldn’t do it anymore. She’d already been in the process of buying a new condo in another state. A new school, a new state, and new friends would do M good. Wouldn’t that be nice, to start over? She was musing, I was fuming.
For a teenager that had difficulty transitioning from his home to the bus, I wondered what made her confident that he would transition easily from his home to another, newer, far away home, a new school, and entirely new people. I managed to gently mention something to that effect, despite the bile that was rising within me. She pretended not to hear me and said she was looking forward to selling their current home. Then, she terminated our sessions.
Typically, I insisted on several sessions prior to termination, in order to help ease the transition. It could be very harmful to simply pull a kid from his therapist, then his school, his friends, and his home. He should be offered the opportunity to prepare himself for the change and to say goodbye properly. G announced it would be unnecessary. He would not be taking the bus any longer, so my services were no longer required. I did my best to say goodbye to M, who did not understand that it was the last time he’d ever see me. G lifted his wrist and shook it back and forth to approximate him waving, something he had done many times on his own.
The hottest, most enraging tears mingled with the bone chilling rain as I returned to my car, defeated.
After taking notes and informing the team of what I’d learned, I drove back to where I’d placed the AMRO. I’d only been at M’s house for 20 minutes. Perhaps I could bring the AMRO to the wildlife vet or check to ensure he was still breathing.
I approached the oak tree slowly, careful not to shock him. I crouched down over the root system to find… nothing. There was no trace of him. If he’d been eaten, there would have been feather fragments or tracks. In my heart, I knew he had survived. Perhaps he’d hopped into the bushes nearby or even found a crevice in the enormous oak in which to wait out the rain.
I’ll never know if G went through with her grand reinvention, or if M ever found ways to cope with the changes, or with his self-centered, deluded mother. I am hopeful that as he grows up some of what we did together will stay with him and help him along his path.
We may help save a life with our smallest acts of compassion, but we may never know the full effects of what our actions have wrought.
The first of “Our Autistic Expression”, a series intended to inform interested parties about our observations and experiences. Rather than a sweepingly broad brush of neurodivergent averages (an oxymoronic idea), we wish to present very particular, brief, unique-to-us-yet-hopefully-relatable vignettes. We write to the curious, the empathetic, and the open-minded, regardless of where and if on the spectrum they identify.
Climb the aged ladder to the attic of our minds. Pull the chains attached to the singular, incandescent bulbs. Squint for a dim, noncomprehensive view of whatever thoughts are nearest the doorways.
Sunshine & the Scientist
400 Words on Verbosity
I have always been labeled as highly verbal, aka talkative, chatty, too chatty, the arbiter of big words, the little professor from the earliest age, the know-it-all, the curious questioner. Even before I could talk, I mimicked basic sign language learned from children’s television to communicate with my parents. Then, I absorbed language with an unquenchable thirst, reading at a higher grade level than my peers by a factor of two. In my school years, teachers remarked simultaneously how proud they were of my talkative nature and my incredible vocabulary, and how disappointed they were of my inability to sit quietly or be challenged by the assignments and activities they presented.
For most people, a few minutes’ conversation is usually enough for even the least discerning individuals to notice that I’m…something. My partner has much the same effect. He often gets called a genius, brilliant, wonderous, which are all likely accurate. I, in comparison, am mistakenly labeled as conniving, manipulative, or domineering –all code for smart lady in a patriarchal society. In my view, the assumptions about my partner and I are not based on the content of our conversations, but rather our specificity of words, our lengthy speech patterning, and our penchant for being able to cite facts and figures, dates and names, with relative ease and accuracy. We also, unlike many we meet, will typically identify when we know we don’t know.
Because of the speed at which I process language, and the adoring deliberateness with which I communicate, I am full of puns, jokes, call-backs, accents, regional dialects, song lyrics, doubly- and triply-layered innuendo, and metacognitive observations. I may move too fast to be followed, making fewer connections aloud than I realize. My jokes fall flat for the uninitiated. My references seem scattered and my intentions mysterious. For other neurodivergent folk, I am a gem, if a bit overwhelming. For the non-divergent, I am a pariah, a handful, a witch, or an existential threat.
I am fortunate to have found my partner, who can follow and extend the conversation with unmatched precision. We can chat for hours and our attics are endlessly vaulted, a bit dusty, infrequently accessed, and jam-packed with interesting anecdotes and artifacts. We both developed with an intense passion for learning and for communicating, and it bonds us in the ways it sets us apart from others.
To the little professors, past and present, I see you.
About the Series
I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent. My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly.
We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)
On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf
As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.
Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.
Modern Retellings for Everyday Life
 Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb
For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.
The Wolf of the Workplace
(in 2 minutes or less)
T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.
After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.
T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.
Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.
T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.
On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.
A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.
Family Discussion Questions
Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.
In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
“The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
“Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.
Wolves in Our Daily Lives
It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.
Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.
For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb?
Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?
Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:
For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.
In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails. On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.
On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. Theyhad to know and I had to tell them.
Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat. After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.
If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.
I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true. My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.
We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.
It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway. The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.
The day was not to end just yet, however.
As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.
Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.
It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.
The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.
From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?
I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.
In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.
My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.
Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.
When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.
There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.
I really was wearing this shirt:
(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)
Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:
Our second month taught us a lot about stamina and resilience in creating a sustainable blog.
Sunshine and the Scientist present: Putting Down Roots and Raking Up Leaves
continues to be a learning experience, an empathetic stomping ground, and a casual experiment.
In the month of May, we published 9 entries, 75% of April’s cache.
This wasn’t a calculated decision. The month of May got away from us, as social and occupational obligations began to add up. We had serious car trouble (another story for another day), which took Sunshine out of the writing running for nearly a week and a half. There was also a very lovely vacation weekend where barely any tech was touched.
By the Numbers
The 9 entries received a total of 114 views from 70 visitors, accessing from 10 countries. While the United States remains the center of our readership base by a factor of 10, we are gaining popularity with readers in Spain and the UK.
With 25% fewer entries, it is encouraging to have had approximately an equal drop in visitors. This is being attributed to a more deliberate social media sharing schedule, and is being interpreted favorably. After two months, there is a trend of approximately 8 visitors per entry, and this is a statistic which will be important moving forward.
Clearly, May was not as good as April in the numbers, as we missed our goals by respective landslides. But like true scientists, we learn by failing.
It appears there was a burst in followers in our first month, but a serious depreciation rate in the second. For this change, we will adjust our goals accordingly.
Comments and likes also depreciated, but this is partially attributable to the significantly decreased presence on the site overall. Many of the comments and likes in our first month were garnered from those pages we stopped in to comment, like, or subscribe to. In focusing more on social sharing, we decreased our previous WordPress Reader presence and thus our impact in our readers’ and potential readers’ view.
An article from April, There’s Something About Lori, about Sunshine’s journey of self-discovery and personal autistic awareness, remained the most popular article on the blog in May.
This was followed by What We Learned Rebuilding, an in-depth look at the lessons Sunshine and the Scientist collected while rebuilding the front porch deck, regarding construction techniques and relationship building.
The Scientist would like me to add that while Sunshine called us “novices” in the entry, he is very adept and familiar with tools and hardware, and has (re)constructed decks before. Sunshine was the true novice during the build, and please know the article was written mostly from her perspective.
The Scientist has also since begun work in a laboratory where he uses power tools and crafting materials all the time, and we cannot wait to share with you more about his new profession in a future entry.
Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question was the third most popular entry, informed by Sunshine’s years of working with autistic children and incorporating her unusual, yet accurate, observations as an atypical, neurodiverse woman. While the Scientist finds the blog entry to be gripping and informative, Sunshine believes it was likely too lengthy for the message it hopes to communicate, which is simply: Never ask a “did you tell” question to a child when you know, and they know you know, the answer. Click the link above for anecdotal and descriptive explanations.
Less popular was the Modern Retellings series, debuting on Friday afternoons, and currently featuring the titles The Fox and the Briefcase,The Snapchat Gnat, and Friendly, Feathered Competition. The series is intent on communicating Aesop’s fables in 2-minutes-or-less, in more technologically savvy allegories. Despite its reception, the series will continue into June, because it is something we believe is vital and currently missing from our cultural discourse.
Setting Goals for June
The goals for May were simple, and somewhat qualitative:
Increase reach, reception, and enhance discourse
Publish 15 entries, plus Stats and Goals
Use feedback to enhance article content
In an effort to continue to thrive at any new commitment, attainable goals are necessary. Failing to meet a goal provides a learning opportunity, and the chance to reset and refocus with intention.
Keeping this in mind, in the month of June, we aim to:
– Publish 2 Science and nature entries, 1 Relationship-building entry, 3 Modern Retellings entries, and perhaps at least 1 update, among others, with an ideal of 10 (this month +1)
– Increase activity by seeking out further interactions through the WordPress reader
– Maintain current levels of social link sharing to maintain and promote readership
…Wait, one more thing!
The most informative and most critical article we wrote this month was Tick Tock, Ticks are Hungry. Sunshine and the Scientist strongly encourage you to know the risk of ticks in your area and to take all necessary precautions. Check out your local, county, and state park websites for relevant information, and skim through the list we’ve cultivated to assert safe practices. Did you know ticks are arachnids who grow a pair of legs each year? Did you know they don’t fly or jump, but attach to bodies that brush by their outstretched, leafy perch? All that and more in the article linked above.
My partner and I are busy working professionals, working nine to five while cultivating side hustles, keeping house, landscaping, staying fit, eating healthfully, and raising cats. We’re Busy. And yet, just about every week, we make time to head down to the local pool hall and play a few games. It keeps our relationship strong.
[Skip to the next heading if you’re familiar with the basics. Or read on to read as I summarize a rule book in a couple of paragraphs. ]
If you’ve never played pool before, I’m going to give an amateur description of the game play and rules. One person racks, which means sets up the balls. The rack is a triangle formation of 10 balls, the 8 ball being the most important to keep in the center position. The other person will break using a cue stick, meaning attempt to hit the white cue ball into this formation, hard enough break up the balls, but not so hard the cue ball flies off the table. If the breaker gets one in, they’re entitled to aim the cue ball toward any other ball other than the 8 toward any pocket (that’s the cup or hole where the ball falls.) If the breaker doesn’t get one in on the break, or if they do and miss their second shot, the table is Open.
The racking person now has a chance to hit the cue ball into any (not the 8) ball they like. Once either person makes a shot in after the break, they will either be stripes or solids (or high ball/low ball based on the numbers on the ball), depending on which they got in. The players take turns, shooting until they miss, until all of their solids or stripes are in. Once the colored balls are in, the player can shoot on the 8.
If one accidently moves a ball, accidently sinks the cue ball, or does a number of other things, that’s a scratch. Other person can put the cue where ever they want behind the starting line to start their turn. If the 8 ball goes in out of order, as in before all of the solids or all of the stripes are in, game over, that player loses. My partner and I also call our shots, so if the ball goes into a pocket we made by mistake or didn’t announce ahead of time, lose a turn. And if the 8 ball goes into a pocket we didn’t call, game over, that’s losing. And if a player sinks the cue while missing the shot on the 8, that’s ball-in-hand, meaning the other person can set up the cue anywhere they like. If the first player scratches while sinking the 8, that’s game over, and how statistically I beat my partner most nights.
That’s probably good enough for background.
Partners & Competitors
It’s a game you can play alone, but it strengthens the partnership.
One thing we have consistently found is that we are excellent partners in life. We divide the chores. We plan with consideration. He help and trust each other without question. We are able to support one another through nearly every difficulty, and one of us is always able to take the lead in difficult moments to get us to where we need to be.
But we’re also incredibly competitive, and that’s not something that goes well with partnership typically. If we didn’t play pool, we would get overly supportive of one another, sappy, sweet, take each other too seriously, and generally miss out on the fun of competition. We love to compete, and pool gives us a way of doing it in a confined and specific way where no one is taking themselves too seriously.
In the past, we’ve also played in weekly leagues in doubles rounds. This is a different way of channeling both our partnership instinct and our need for competition. We’ve learned how to set each other up while defending against the other pair, how to support one another with the right praise at the right time, and we’re pretty unstoppable in most local doubles matches.
Trash Talk Motivates
On the off chance that either of us decides to trash talk the other in the fun spirit of competition, typically the receiver of the trashing rises to prove the other wrong. I’ve trashed my partner’s play many times with the idea of motivating him to shoot better- and I always regret it because of how quickly he proves me wrong.
Clearing the Mind
Meditation in Precision
No matter what has happened during the work day, we leave it at the door. (We’ve sat in the car outside the hall a number of times to vent before the play.) We have an unspoken agreement that we do not discuss work or other stressors during the game. First, it’s a game best played quietly and in a focused manner. The chatterer could throw either person off. Second, I have no desire to ruin my partner’s mood when I’ve had a bad workday and we’re in a relaxed setting. We need time to decompress away from the stressors, not around them.. Third, the simple act of lining up the cue, focusing the energy, creating a delicate force, and choosing the proper angles is meditative. During our most skilled games, we’re likely not talking much at all. The silence is sweet. We’re meditating in precise movements.
Geometry is Wild
It’s hard to deny how cool math and physics can be.
Those angles I mentioned? At first, as an amateur player, I saw the balls straight on. But I’ve never played a game with a clear straightaway shot on every turn. In the beginning, it was all defense. How can I hide this cue ball or make it more difficult at the very least? Then, as I developed skills, I started to see banks (hitting the ball against the side or rail of the table) and combinations (hitting one ball into another ball to knock it in.) My growing comfort and increasing finesse has led me to learning about how spin (English) on the cue can move the ball in otherwise seemingly impossible ways. My partner is working on Masse’ — curving the cue around something to his what he’s aiming at. The more we play, the more we see see the options, angles, and possibilities. We’re developing a kind of second sight. Geometry (seeing the angles) and physics (understanding force) are undeniably necessary and totally cool in this setting. And often, it is the lightest of touch that is needed- a lesson my partner and I both have absorbed over time.
Progress is Possible
The act of playing is practice enough to get comfortable.
Like with other things, the more we play, the better we get. And even if I’m having an off-night, not able to see straight or find the force I need, e.g., there is still the growing sensation that practice makes progress. Not every hobby has perceivable levels of difficulty on which to measure ability. In this game, the way we play, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about shooting the shot.
Also Winning and Losing
We don’t keep an ongoing record, but it’s nice to win the night.
Despite what I said above, it’s also about winning and losing. Of course it is. My partner and I look at the game one shot at a time, and then a series of games at a time. We give praise freely for the great shots, but we don’t suffer the loss of the individual games. (My first game is always a practice game, unless I win, then it counts.) We play best of 5 or 7, and whoever loses buys dinner or drives home. The reward is irrelevant, but it adds a fun twist to our night. Then the next time we get to the table, usually the one who won will be sure to mention their greatest shot from the previous game. And it makes the one who lost all the more fired up to win this time around.
A Uniquely Individual Sport
How you play is how You play.
My bridge (how I balance the cue on my left hand to aim with my right) is strange. Most people balance their cue in between their thumb and forefinger, but me — I feel more comfortable shooting between my index and middle finger. I have long hands, and I feel I have more stability if I use my spidery fingers to this end. And at the pool hall, no one will ever give me any stress about not doing it “right”, whatever that means. Whether its how you stand, how you approach the table, your hand positions, your aim, the way you see the game, the kinds of shots you take or any other facet of the game — no one is ever going to stop you unless you’re breaking a specific rule. There’s no right or wrong way to play, at least not at this level, and there’s a freedom in developing style and technique in an expectation vacuum. It’s cathartic in a world that is typically full of people telling other people what to do and not to do. (Professionals have thoroughly developed techniques and thoughtfully considered approaches, but we’re just a couple of weeknight players.)
Help is Fine Too
If the game isn’t that serious, ask the question.
How many times have I asked my partner — not as a competitor but as a friend — what do you think I should do here? I respect the way he plays and his eye for the game, and sometimes, if I’m in a pickle between two options, I’ll ask him to step outside the game and look with me, as a teammate. Sometimes he’ll tell me that I don’t have a clear shot, because of how he left the table. Sometimes, he’ll weigh in specifically based on what he sees. And I don’t always take his advice. Sometimes, after he weighs in, I realize (like calling the coin flip in the air) that I’ve already made my decision. And since we play different games, different styles, different techniques — the respect is mutual. I don’t have to take his advice, but I’m free to ask it.
10 Lessons Learned
Always shoot your shot and aim to shoot well.
Respect your opponent as if they were yourself.
Silence is golden.
Meditation can be active.
Try and see all the angles.
A delicate hand beats a heavy hand most of the time.
Practice makes progress.
Mistakes are not setbacks.
Schedule play dates, especially as an adult and leave your troubles at the door.
Respect the rules and earn respect.
Find Your Table
It might not be pool.
The healthiest thing we’ve done as partners is add a competitive outlet to an otherwise supportive set-up. I can’t recommend enough that all partners do the same. Your thing might not be pool (we also love a few challenging board games for similar reasons) but whatever it is, your partnership outlet should be the following things:
A medium where you feel both competitive and supportive of one another
A forum that requires concentration, focus, or the honing of a skill
An activity that can connect to other enjoyable aspects of life
A hobby with delineated progress and achievement levels
A fun, playful, enjoyable, not-too-serious time
An equal balance of procedure and free choice
A place either person can ask for or provide assistance
Something you can laugh about together
Something that can sweep you up in the moment
Something that feels right for you both
How do you and your partner destress as a team and strengthen your skills?
Adapted from Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about value and competition. After the story, see the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, read on to learn more about the intention of the Modern Retelling series, and share with me your thoughts or fable ideas.
Friendly, Feathered Competition
(in 2-min or less)
J & R had a friendly competition over everything — who could hit the most homeruns, who would get higher grades, who had the better phone . They both wanted to learn how to drive and to have a sporty, fast car, and boasted about who would be driving first. They passed their driving tests on the same day. When J got home with the new license, there was a brand new Crisio Peacock waiting in the driveway! J texted a picture to R right away — victory! No car could beat this! R had also received a car when arriving home from the test — a 2010 Clumper Crane, which would need some work. At school the next day, J bragged to R that the Peacock was so much nicer than the Crane. “It’s brand new, fast and sporty, not like yours!” R replied easily, “A fancy new car is great and all, but your insurance premiums must be super high and you’ll need to pay for high-octane gas. The Peacock also has the worst safety and crash test ratings on the market. My Crane will survive any accident, last me for years, the insurance will cost me almost nothing, and with the money I’m saving, I can customize it, paint it, and really make it my own.” A few weeks later, J drove into the lot with a crumpled bumper and a bruised ego, and was shocked to find that R’s Crane was detailed and gleaming with the best speaker system he’d ever seen.
The Peacock’s feathers may be more brilliant and colorful, but the Crane knows that his dull gray feathers help him soar through the sky while the Peacock must remain on the ground, suffer the mud, and see those beautiful feathers grow dirty.
I suppose I am quite fortunate to have had parents who made dinner table conversation a priority. While a television played in the background, we’d discuss pieces of our days and catch up on topics of interest. I typically found myself in a way to criticize classmates or express exasperation at teachers- I was a bright, attentive kid, but difficult to challenge. How disappointing the world can be when you’re brilliant and bored — I was Sherlock without a case. I’d raise my hands at the table and expound, “Why do they have to do x like this? Wouldn’t it be better to do y instead?” There was no end to the frustration.
At this point, my father, utilizing the Socratic method, would begin asking me to think through decision trees and the potential motivations of others. While I could never be sure why someone had chosen a particular route, I could work out reasonings for deliberate choices that were made. (It wasn’t until much later I realized that not everyone makes deliberate choices. This was a facet of life that I learned from my mother — some of us swim with the current, some against, and some just allow the water to move us along.) This discussion method, Socratic questioning in particular, raised my empathetic awareness and has made me the person I am today.
I encourage you to open a dialog with loved ones. Use the fables as a starting place. Can you create another analogous, more modern adaptation of the Peacock and the Crane? Are there things that you covet that are not necessarily worth what they seem? Is there another fable or moral that stays with you, one that might be worth sharing with others?
What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Peacock and the Crane?
Is there something you once coveted, but have since realized is not worth the price?
Is there any fable or story that made an impact on your empathy and the way you engage with the world?
Comment below and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.
[TLDR: For the Quick Summary, please scroll to the Summary heading.]
Read on for the explanation.
Every parent I’ve ever met wants the best for their kid and parenting is a nonstop job. Parents work long hours, have big hearts, and push their kids to have the very best quality of life they can imagine. While working in-home with autistic kids, I always integrated family members into our sessions — they’d provide support long after I’d gone home for the night. I used my experience and training to give families the building blocks to strengthen their family ties and grow together.
The adage is true; It takes a village.
So now, it is with the best of intentions and my sincerest appreciation for our shared responsibilities that I bring something to your attention:
There is one question we need to stop asking.
I hear The Question so frequently that I honestly wonder about its ubiquity. How did we, as a culture, land on this one question as a means to an end?
It’s a simple and well-intentioned question that steps on its own toes, so to speak. It gets in its own way. Bites its own tongue. Circular reasons itself out of meaningfulness. Causes exactly what it’s attempting to prevent.
In real time, I’m powerless to stop it from being asked. The Question, this one small, well-meant colloquial adult-asks-kid scenario is so annoyingly antithetical to its purpose that I’m dedicating an entire entry to it (one that has been cut down from near-6k words.) It has the opposite effect for which it is meant. It reinforces the behavior intended to be changed.
How is the question raised?
Setting the Scene — Scenario
Jo and I are sitting at their dining room table. Jo is 10 years old, loves to play soccer, use metallic ink pens, and is intensely passionate about narrow interests. They have been diagnosed with co-morbid learning and communication delays. I visit their house several times a week, for a few hours at a time as a “tutor” and I “teach” social skills.
To this end, I use mirroring and modeling techniques, based on the iso-principle, to artificially match their energy and affect for pairing in the relationship. (Over time, I’ll use the technique less.) For now, it helps create a friendly foundation on which to build a learning environment. It also lets me briefly assess and evaluate the appropriate direction for today’s session in particular. There are many potential activities for us, but it’s Jo’s engagement that guides the choice. The session COULD be wacky and wildly energetic, replete with games, songs, and stories. Or, like today, it could be a quiet and reserved approach.
Opening Lines — The Lead Up
Jo is not making eye contact, their hands are down, and their shoulders are drooping. After knowing Jo a few months, I’ve come to expect the ebb and flow (aka dysregulation) of Jo’s emotions and I’ve consistently encouraged them to do what feels comfortable in any given moment.
Jo has unique social and communication needs. They‘re learning how to speak with people (not at them), how to empathize with others, and how to create friendships from incidental connections. They will practice with me, in routine and naturalistic ways, small skills that add up to big strides with me and then slowly generalized to others. My responsibility is to present the complexity of skills into easily manageable, repeatable, and quantifiable behaviors, then guide them to chain the skills together in useful, less mechanistic ways. I don’t expect Jo to learn all of these skills at once. For today, it’s okay if they can’t make eye contact. It’s okay if we sit quietly together for a few minutes without speaking, if they cannot return my greeting, or if they cannot respond to any question I ask. These are the most important skills I’m hoping to model, and we have all of our time together to practice them.
Even if Jo and I have achieved a richly engaging conversation in the past, I don’t anticipate or push for one. Jo is growing their understanding of back-and-forth social exchanges. In the meantime, I know through experience that there’s no sense in forcing them to interact. Over time, I’ll use reinforcement, repetition, role play, singing, game play, and other techniques, to teach this complex task which comes naturally to some, but not so to others.
Enter Mom and the Question of the Ages
Le had greeted me at the door and shown me into the room where Jo waits. She stands in the doorway as Jo and I take our places at the table, hovering expectantly as many moms do. After a beat, she begins shifting her weight uncomfortably as she recognizes what I’ve mentioned: Jo’s disengagement.
Le’s main goal for having me here is to enhance Jo’s communication abilities and the quality of their social interactions. She wants them to make friends more easily. She is very eager to see them communicate with others the way they only seem to communicate with her. Jo CAN talk, after all, but they sometimes struggle to speak genuinely with anyone other than Le. She’s concerned about their daily interactions, especially with adolescence on the horizon. I’ve done my best to educate Le to moderate her expectations. Her relationship with them will always be unique. They are actually very typical for a neurodivergent kid. These skills can take time, and it’s time we must all be ready for.
Let’s Begin — Jo and Me (and apparently, Le)
While I stack my notebooks and pull out my metallic pens, I can sense Le’s discomfort and anticipation. Jo may sense it too. It’s not helping Jo in the slightest.
I model for Le while also seeking Jo’s engagement. I prompt Jo, softly, patiently.
How was your day, Jo?
Good, Jo continues looking at their lap.
What would you like to talk about?
I did something fun today.
Can I tell you about my fun day?
In my head, I’m figuring out the path for this session. I’m using questions to provide opportunities. I’m evaluating the day’s objectives, informed by the overall communication goal and the presenting affect. Given their reserved responses, I’m planning to move to a medium with less conversation, like a worksheet, a music intervention, or a game. It will take the spotlight pressure off.
Jo turns to see Le hovering in the corner by the door. They look up at her, avoiding my gaze completely. (They are nonverbally seeking assistance.) Seeing their head turn, in the way of most well-meaning parents, Le rushes to Jo’s aid and inadvertently asks the most nonfunctional yet somehow pervasive question.
I try and signal Le not to speak, knowing the question is coming, but without rudely cutting her off, there’s nothing I can do. I silently observe Le as she, with the best intentions, reinforces Jo’s communication strife.
The Question that Answers Itself
“Did you tell Lori about … ?” Le prompts.
It’s a common phrasing. Meaningless in this situation, yet we use it regularly. It’s an error that sets my teeth on edge. It does nothing to help the child break out of their shell or learn appropriate interactions. It doesn’t enhance the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t model natural conversation and it doesn’t encourage social exploration. But, as I’ve said, Le’s mistake is a mistake we all make from time to time with kids. Le already knows the answer, and Jo knows she knows.
You Already Know
Whatever follows the question doesn’t matter.
Did you tell Lori about the field trip you went on yesterday?
Did you tell Grandma whathappened over the weekend?
Did you tell your friend where we went after football practice?
Did you tell your teacher about your new shoes?
Did you tell [person][event/thing/action]?
And so on.
Varying Responses with Only One Result
“Did you tell Lori about the field trip?“
Jo, like most kids, responds by sitting quietly without responding. Jo, in a difficult moment, has successfully passed the communication reins to Le, and will now have Le lead the conversation.
Jo looks self-conscious. The thing they didn’t mention is red ink on the page. Jo hasn’t said anything at all, their mom knows it, and yet, their mom has put them in a situation to either say “no” or not respond at all. The question does not open a line of dialog — it creates an end point.
To incorporate the framing of the question, I turn my body toward her saying something to the effect of, “Jo will tell me when they’re ready,” and then turn back to Jo and ask a direct, potentially related, question. Whatever I ask will be open-ended enough to allow Jo the agency of responding, as Le has already removed the agency of choosing a subject. I might ask something like:
Jo, where did you go on your field trip?
Who was on the field trip with you?
Did you take a bus with your class, or ride in a car?
Unfortunately for Jo, Le feels tired of Jo not responding, and wants to show them what to do. Before I can leave space and ask Jo a direct question, Le jumps in again:
You went to the museum, right? Tell Lori about the museum, and what your teacher said.”
In every case that I’ve seen using the “Did you tell…” framing followed by an additional piece of information, every kid, just like Jo, repeats back whatever was said and falls silent again. Jo:
We went to a museum.
This isn’t a natural conversation, and Jo doesn’t even have a starring role in it. I can ask whatever I want now, Jo will likely only shrug or look back to Le. Over time, Jo and Le have adapted this likely unconscious routine, where Jo has difficulty initiating, Le fills in the blanks, and Jo parrots back a response enough to appease me, or any adult Jo is expected to talk to.
An Easy Mistake with Lasting Consequences
In an effort to persuade Jo to begin talking, Le is fabricatinga situation for them to rely on another person to start talking.
In this instance, Le is not teaching them to speak. She is speaking for Jo in a somewhat condescending way. Perhaps Jo doesn’t want to discuss the field trip with me, or perhaps there’s something else on their mind. Maybe they were waiting on a better time to bring it up, or maybe they just didn’t want to talk at all. Le has removed Jo’s agency, likely in response to their own discomfort with our mutual silence.
It’s completely well-intentioned. It’s also detrimental. Le may be the person who saves her friends from awkward conversations at cocktail parties, but her child is also relying heavily on her to do so every day.
If you’re not sure why “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is bad, here are 4 glaring issues I’ve seen in practice.
1. “You KNOW I didn’t”
“Did you tell…?” No, and you know it! Le knows Jo has not told me this story, she’s been standing there the whole time! In no way does this resemble a natural, conversational style. Issue 1: Modeling Unnatural Interaction
2. Insinuating “You should/could have mentioned…”
“Did you tell…?” In natural conversational style, the way most of us would respond to being asked this question would be to say “No I didn’t tell…” followed by actually telling or giving a reason why we haven’t told yet.
Jo doesn’t have a natural conversational style; it’s why they’re working with me. By asking this, Le is expecting Jo to have mastered this part of dialog we take for granted, insinuating they should have mentioned the thing, and holding Jo to a test they can likely at this stage only fail. Issue 2: Setting the Bar Too High While Simultaneously Acknowledging It’s Unreached
3. “Don’t put me on the spot!”
The self-awareness required to answer the question correctly is almost always accompanied by feelings of shyness, discomfort, or poor self-esteem. Le put Jo on the spot to discuss something they picked, and does so repeatedly on a regular basis. After this interaction with me, Jo typically lashes out in anger, at agreed upon boundaries or at themselves.
“Did you tell…?”
“Man, why didn’t I think of telling them about that?” or “I didn’t want to mention that — but now I guess we have to talk about it.”
Issue 3: Creating Feelings of Inadequacy or Poor Self-Esteem
4. “What do I do now?”
“Did you tell…?” is a prompt that reinforces the dependent relationship, and the more it’s used, the more deeply it’s entrenched in their interactions. Jo will wait to be prompted by Le to speak, and will rely on Le for the appropriate topic in any given moment. What will Jo do when Le is not around? Perhaps, lead the conversation alone, but in my experience, if this is a routine occurrence, Jo will clam up or wait to be directed when Le is not around. And who will Jo take prompts from? Potentially, anyone. Issue 4: Conditioning Unwanted Behavior
Show, Don’t Tell
Every adult who interacts with Jo has a responsibility to model natural conversation, so that Jo is able to begin to implement what they learn in our sessions. If Le feels like she must jump in, she can say to me, “Jo went on a field trip today. Maybe they’ll tell you about that when they’re ready.”
Jo’s responsibility is to communicate to the best of their ability, whatever that may be today. They do not need to make me feel comfortable, to act outside of their nature perform for me. They may or may not be aware that communication is even expected, which is completely and totally okay.
It’s my responsibility to show and not tell how I start conversations, what topics are good jumping-off points, and the mechanisms by which our language is figurative, inferential, casual, and anticipatory.
Recapping the Question Not to Ask
When asking “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you are inadvertently and with the best of intentions:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
An Addendum for Minimally Verbal Children
“Minimally Verbal”, or occasionally “Nonverbal”, is the descriptive term therapists use for those who use functional language minimally (if at all).
The Question is Still Problematic
For the minimally verbal, “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is potentially even more detrimental. For functionally verbal children like Jo, the question is problematic for all the reasons listed above. For minimally verbal children with difficulties processing or understanding language, the question reinforces the wrong idea. In this instance, following
Did you tell Lori we went to the park?
will frequently be answered with either an incorrect answer or an echo.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “Yes.” No, you didn’t. Tell Lori we went to the park.
Did you tell Lori we went to the park? “the Park.”
The responses are not functional. The child doesn’t understand what is being asked. In most cases, parents then respond positively —
“The park.” “Yes! That’s right! We went to the park!”
Functionally, the child sees a happy parent and hears praise. The child will now be conditioned to respond the same way following each “Did you” question.
Did you eat lunch? “Yes. Eat lunch.”
Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes.”
Did the lunch person help you with your lunchbox? “Lunchbox.”
Did you know you forgot your lunch? “Yes.” But did they know?
It is truly amazing to watch as minimally verbal children begin to process language with more specific intervention. For some, with exposure to more concise and deliberate language patterns, start they begin to parse through sentence structure and notice jokes, inference, etc. Did you eat gorilla for lunch? “Yes………Noooooo….” Their faces light up with an inkling of confidence and a dawning of understanding. Not everyone will get to this point of understanding, however.
If you believe a minimally verbal child is either repeating the last word or responding yes or no without truly understanding to a Did you question, remove the prompt from your vocabulary until the child has more of an understanding of Yes/No, Present/Past, and until “You did, You didn’t” is more readily understood.
Other Suggestions for Avoiding the “Did You” Question
Give the therapist or teacher a head’s up. Prior to the session, email/call/text, out of the child’s earshot, and give the details about the child’s day. A good therapist will hear that a child was excited to buy new shoes and will guide the conversation naturally in that direction to allow the child the opportunity for success — if they want to, are able to, and feel comfortable doing so.
Write it down with your child! For children with communication deficits, a small bullet journal of potential conversation topics can go a long way. Each night, have the child think back to what was notable about the day — trips, events, funny moments, fights, whatever they might want to talk about. Write a small reminder for each, or draw a small picture, and then get in the habit of having that book available during the session and beyond. The act of reflecting on a regular basis will help the child to understand what is expected when someone asks “What did you do today?” or “What do you want to talk about?”
If you feel you must prompt, then change up the question. Give a gentle verbal reminder that does not begin with “Did you tell…” There are a lot of ways to do this. Use names and speak plainly so it is clear who is talking to who and ask questions that lead in a specific, but open direction, rather than yes/no.
Lori, yesterday Jo and I went shopping.
Jo, Lori wants to hear about your new shoes.
Lori, you have GOT to hear about this. Jo, tell Lori about our trip to the mall.
Jo, it looks like Lori is wearing new sneakers — you and Lori have that in common. What can you ask her about her sneakers?
These prompts aren’t ideal because they still create boundaries to Jo developing their own natural conversational style, but these prompts are infinitely better than the defeating “did you” prompt.
4. Simply, let it go. That’s right. Just let it go. Let the therapist work. Let the child make progress. Let the moment proceed all on its own. Let everyone sit in what is perceived to be an uncomfortable silence. What made your child excited yesterday, may currently not have the same effect. It was a special moment for the two of you, but not necessarily something to talk about. Perhaps once the session is over, the child will point out that special thing, or wait for the therapist to notice.
If there’s no way to prompt the therapist privately or prompt your child in an open-ended manner, ask yourself — how necessary is my intervention in this moment? Can I let this go? Typically, yes, yes you can.
Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter.
It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills.
By asking the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” you may be:
Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
Conditioning Dependence in Social Settings
4. Instead, replace “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” try:
Contact the people the child is going to be talking to ahead of time, so they know what to ask about directly.
Help the child keep a bulleted or pictorial reflection journal as a conversational assistant.
Use a gentle, different verbal reminder, and be open to the child’s answer even if it isn’t on your intended topic.
Let the topic go.
No promises, but…
Jo is a special kid. They’re gifted in their own way. Sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes very engaging. You may not even know what they are capable of. If you let them develop without prodding, you’ll be amazed at the potential they have. Trust me when I tell you, it will be worth the wait when you hear him learn new skills, gain confidence, and begin to engage others with ease.
I would love to hear your comments, questions, additions, or anecdotes.
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Adapted from Aesop’s The Gnat and The Bull, may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation about community and ego. After the story, see the moral of the original fable as I interpret it, and read on to learn more about my intentions behind the Modern Retelling series.
The Snapchat Gnat
(…in 2 mins or less.)
There was a kid named Nat who posted on social media across many different platforms as often as possible. Nat thought that the opinions, takes, updates, and stories were adored by all and critical for everyone to hear. Despite maintaining a steady number of followers, Nat had very low engagement, hardly any likes, and few comments. One day, Nat’s favorite pic-share app was hacked, and the hacker began posting spam and ads on the account. They worried everyone would think they’d been the one posting, and they contacted the company to recover the account. After three days, Nat regained access, deleted all of the hacker’s posts, and sent out a message to the community of followers which read: “You probably noticed I got hacked, but don’t worry, I’ll be updating you soon on what shows I watched, what food I ate, where I’ve been, and what stores I’m recommending today.” Nat was fearful that their followers would be missing their insight or thinking Nat endorsed those products. Despite sending the message to over 800 people, Nat received only one message in reply. The message said simply, “I had no idea you were hacked, I muted your account months ago.” Nat then realized, after all the time he’d taken to share, he wasn’t really sharing with anyone.
The gnat who landed to rest and relax on the horn of a bull should not be surprised to find his presence made no difference to the bull whatsoever. We are often much more important and valued in our own eyes than in the eyes of others.
Many years ago, I led two philosophy circles based on The Socrates Café (a book by Christopher Phillips and also a movement of philosophical perspective-sharing which followed the book’s publishing). During our weekly meetings, the moderator (I, or another) would pose a philosophical question for Socratic inquiry. It might be something seemingly concrete or intentionally abstract — Why did the chicken cross the road? Which is stronger: love or hate? Should ethics be a mandatory subject in public school? etc. Then the group would take turns discussing, debating, posing new questions, and leading in new directions. The moderator might find new questions for the following week within the context of the dialogue, and after 2 hours or so, the group would disperse for coffee and donuts. It was a grand time.
In the years since, I’ve found that my high school and college environments were not indicative of most, that philosophy was not encouraged so strongly among other groups, and that the basic tenets of debate and discussion were not understood among the masses. There was high interest to learn, however. I believe a great starting point for these types of philosophical discussions are Aesop’s fables — short stories incorporative of moral lessons, passed down over thousands of years, adapted across many cultures. For the modern, technologically advanced society we live in, I have translated these animal tales into hopefully more accessible, yet analogous stories.