Everything Fashion:

Our Autistic Expression

In this installment, I recap all I’ve discovered about myself and the Scientist in all our preferred, fashionable glory.

Your Fashion is Not Our Fashion

We are nonjudgmental and do not hold anyone to the standards to which we hold ourselves. It’s critical you understand this if you read on.

Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

A Time and a Place

The destination, setting, and intended mood dramatically affects the choice of attire. The Scientist and I have both been accused of being somewhat cartoonish in our outfit choices, but only because we have a deep-seated desire to match the environment — a desire that ironically makes us stand out. I wish to fit in, he wishes to blend in (I think these are different.)

Where most people have something of a capsule wardrobe or a set style that they wear for most things, or a seasonal approach, or an affection for neturals, our wardrobe is entirely contingent on the expectation, the setting, the mood, the location, the crowd, etc. Each of these factors holds weight.

I’ve never owned, and never will own, an LBD.

Before the Event

Before a job interview, party, hang-out, family visit, date night, etc., I don’t worry over the directions, the people, the food, or anything else. I consider what the outfit should communicate.

It’s a function of my anxiety, insecurity, preparation, and self-control — my autistic expression. I can’t control most variables, but I can doll myself up to look the part.

If I’ve never been to a place before and can’t see pictures ahead of time, or if I’ll be with people I don’t know, I fret about wardrobe.

Standing Out by Trying to Fit In

It may be hard to imagine this from outside the spectrum. Imagine if everywhere was actually a movie set — a location designed intentionally a certain way for a certain reason. There’s lighting, style, texture, energy, etc.

Then, the actors are dressed specifically to match the tone. Muted colors or bright, matching or contrasting, symbolic in one way or another — patterns appropriate to the architecture, time period or set by the lighting — cuts and styles seeming to originate from the era, blending seamlessly to create an illusion for the audience… All things the clothing designer considers when dressing the actors for full effect.

I’m not acting. This is me, for real. I’m becoming the most appropriate part of the scenery as I expect it to be. The Scientist too, to a lesser extent. His wardrobe has been cultivated to be timeless, unique and memorable — much like his personality. He’s not concerned with fitting in to the background so much as being himself, inspiring his own mood for the day, and matching the tone I’m setting.

I attribute my fashion obsession to many factors. I was singled out for my clothing in elementary school. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses because of how I boyishly sat and played. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother’s closet and was forced into oversized, stiff tees. My body developed early, well ahead of my peers. I was obsessed with fitting in with others, with everyone, through my first 25 years. I felt insecure and detached and craved fitting in. I’m bored over the blandness and unoriginality with what the stores are offering. I need to inspire my own mood to want to socialize. Everything I do stems from an intentional choice.

To feel remotely comfortable, I need to look like I belong, by my own standard. I am a chameleon with thousands of skins.

Photo by Ekaterina Grosheva on Unsplash

On Being Different, Extra

I never want to be the center of attention. I take very few pictures and no videos of myself because I’m ironically not very attached to the way I look. I check the mirror once or twice a day, and not always before I leave the house in the morning. I always wanted to be more than just a pretty face and took a lot of umbrage whenever anyone said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Beauty is irrelevant. It’s luck of the genetic draw. I’d love to blend in, to appear less striking, to be taken seriously as a mind not a face.

But since I intentionally choose my outfits based on an endless wardrobe, I end up standing out. Grudgingly.

It’s gotten me into embarrassing situations in the past. Moments or evenings I’ll regret forever because I overplayed my outfit. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve ruined days being too…me.

Fabrics, Brands, Patterns, and Prints

I won’t wear leather or fur, because it seems silly and cruel to me in a world where the fakes have become as good if not better than the reals.

I don’t wear realistic animal prints for much the same reason, but I never pass up a green zebra print or a colorful feather pattern if it’s right.

Keep your name brands. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices to be a walking billboard for a corporation. The brands that most people pay the most money for seem less valuable to me, lower quality, poorer construction. For that matter, I’m happily thrifty and incorporate vintage pieces often.

I don’t have too many fabrics I won’t wear, but I know the textures I don’t find comfortable. By feel, not by name. I have a few items in my closet that I love the look of, but can’t wear because of fit or feel — and eventually I’ll weed them out when I’m tired of trying to love them and the disappointment has faded.

The Scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, patterning, and construction. He can touch a fabric or see it on a hanger and identify the percentage of the blend. He also dabbles in sewing and clothing design. He wears a lot of birds, flowers, and natural textures. His retirement dream is to design a clothing line.

Colors

The Scientist and I are both able to see more colors than the average person. Although tetrachromacy is typically considered a female trait, we both identified many more color variants than the average when tested. It likely makes us even more attentive and discerning.

I know what goes together. For me. It would be impossible for me to verbalize these rules. They vary by decade or inspiration, cut and mood, all sorts of variables.

I nearly never wear red, blush, or beige. I firmly believe navy and purple can go with anything if you’re using them correctly. There are 100+ versions of each color. Anything can be a neutral. I love using contrasting colors from the wheel, watching for pastel/bright/primary/jewel combinations, and switching up options seasonally. I tend to be a year or two ahead of where the trends are, but I attribute this more to my growing boredom, not because of some insider fashion knowledge.

The Scientist is adept at monochromatics, moreso than I. I’ve never met anyone who can wear shades of red that work together. He also finds ways to match neighboring colors on the color wheel- something I never attempt but something I find so compelling. Usually he prefers blue or lavender.

Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

Head to Toe Fit and Style

I know it when I’m comfortable, which varies greatly based on my anxiety. Despite a fairly static body type, my anxiety will dictate how comfortable I feel in tighter fitting clothing or revealing more skin day to day. Sometimes I really need to show off this or that to feel feminine. Sometimes I need to cover up entirely in billowing fabrics.

My choice is predictive, though. The Scientist can predict an upcoming meltdown if I’ve chosen one of a few “I give up” pieces of clothing in combination. Usually, this is an ill-fitting black shirt with brightly colored rainbow leggings and something that just doesn’t match the rest.

(He’s helped me see my patterns in so many wonderful ways. I highly recommend finding an empathetic neurodivergent partner, if you have an empathetic neurodivergent mind.)

I prefer sneakers — Vans or Cons — which the Scientist has explained is because of my metatarsal arch, which requires a flatter, more protected surface. I toe-walk (common with neurodivergence), and my weight leans toward the outstep of my foot, not the ball. I’m working on fixing my gait and soon I’ll wear corrective braces. It’s not all bad though — I have highly developed musculature in my toes (finger-toes, I call them), and I have pointy, dainty dancer feet for them being size 10 hairless mammoths.

The Scientist is more predictable in fit and style. He likes a tighter fitting pant, a looser fitting button-down, and a seasonally appropriate sleeve. A suit whenever it is appropriate. No pants in the summer, shorts. Always socks. Palladium boots. Tommy Bahama casuals.

Mood

How do I want to feel today? What am I trying to convey? How can I inspire myself to create or focus or embody the nuanced part of myself I deem important right now? Is there a fashion era that will assist me in getting there? A color palette? An attitude? For as much as I want my style to match the environment, I’m also thinking how my style can alter my mood for the moment.

Feeling sluggish? Definitely wear the career casuals associated with office work. Feeling relaxed and free? The artsy throws and pastels will do nicely. Let me layer up the knits for the fun of fall. Break out linen for the freedom of summer nights.

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Memory

Recently, I realized how my outfits function as a touchstone for memory. I don’t know why — perhaps because of the care with which I select them, their uniqueness or weighted importance, or just seeing them in my periphery each day.

Always, automatically, what I wore is a shortcut to the coded file. “Remember that day?” you might ask. Do I? I remember, I was wearing — oh the weather — the scenery — the people — the conversations — and then yes, I do remember that day.

I didn’t realize it was so important to me until the Scientist and I became nostalgic about our own experiences together. “Remember when…” he’d ask. “What was I wearing?” was always my reply. Knowing I have a tendency to encode memories differently, he never took offense when I didn’t remember right away. He can usually recount at least some of the outfit on the day in question and the memory floods back.

The regularity with which I asked him about my clothing drew my attention to my memory’s predilection. And because he and I spend a lot of time together, and because he dresses deliberately as well, his outfits have helped me encode experiences I otherwise would have forgotten. He’s my favorite sight in every scene.

I have trouble remembering the stuff people usually remember , in favor of things people typically don’t notice. I don’t remember the plot of the movie, or who was at the birthday, or what year the party was — my memory might be the strange thought I had when I walked in the room, the fact that I’d seen that poster before, that I got stuck in traffic on the way, or the faded color of the carpeting. I’m me everywhere, and my brain never stops analyzing and formulating — it has no sense for what to prioritize in memory, and certainly no accurate sense of day or year.

But…I can remember…I am this outfit on this day at this time for this reason — so Easter 2019 — the sage green, knee-length, modest dress with delicate lavender flowers that I wore under the lilac denim jacket I’d bought for the occasion with my olive green high-top Vans— meeting the Scientist’s extended family, wearing spring colors and wanting to be me, a casual-yet-romantic-inspired me — and I’ll never forget that day. It’s the intentionality with which it was chosen, the specificity of the clothing, that jogs the day back.

An Unbelievable but Totally True Addendum

The Scientist and I met on a dating site a few years ago. Actually, I’d seen him many times in various contexts before, but didn’t put together that all of these cute guys I’d seen and been too shy to talk to over the years were the same guy. He was the guy that tutored at the library where I worked years earlier. He was the guitarist in that concert I’d been drooling over before that. He was the guy on Myspace that all the girls somehow struck up conversations with before that.

He was the 8-year-old sort-of-Goth kid in the Marilyn Manson shirt that I met at the picnic when I was the 12-year-old wearing the multi-colored striped baby tee and gray parachute pants with butterfly clips who played violin. We’d exchanged a few words. We’d gone our separate ways. We realized it decades later based on the clothing we each wore and what we remembered of the other.

It’s sort of like an autistic fairy tale, wouldn’t you say?

What do your clothes say about you?

I’d never expect my structure to fit around anyone else. And I know that many neurodivergent people consider color, texture, etc in choosing outfits. What else matters about your clothes? Are they communicating something? Are they standing you out or fading you in? Please tell me your autistic expression — I would love to know more.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

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 falls 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.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

What about Maddie?

The author explains it all.

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.

Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission -(Sunshine and the Scientist) – and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.

Cover image of Maddie

The Plot

Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.

“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!” 

I hear this often. Thank you, same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes. 

Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.

First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids – but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.

Maddie checking the mail.

Inspired by Real Life

The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion – wanting to look put together all the time – and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.

(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)

Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention

In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.

Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.

I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books – but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.

Maddie focused on JENGA.

We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.

L.’s interests were narrow – and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless – can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?

I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?

I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.

MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.

The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.

Self-Publishing Amateur Style

I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (and others), and for the humor inside the humor.

On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit – I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)

The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.

Maddie pricks her finger.

Criticism is Understandable

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. This was – sort of – the intention.

The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.

Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.

Where are the Teens?

Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.

Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics – so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?

Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.

Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school – you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.

Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.

If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.

It Isn’t Just One Book

Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.

I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.

It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility – a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.

I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.

Maddie shopping and shocked at the inventory.

So Who and What is it for?

It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.

It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.

The Wrap-Up

It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.

To purchase MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER and support Kid Lit Motivates – please click here.

To receive free downloadable resources to use with MADDIE or without, or to purchase workbook packs, please click here.

If you’re interested in connecting about this or anything Kid Lit Motivates has to offer, please contact us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com, or head to our contact page and fill out the form.

Thank you for your interest in Kid Lit Motivates.

Sunshine and the Scientist: Our Philosophy of Learning

Featured

From the Scientist

While Sunshine and I have been strategically planning the future of Kid Lit Motivates, we stopped to consider our primary goals. While we discussed content and presentation at length, we realized something important. Content is less relevant to us than we previously imagined. Our learning philosophy is a framework upon which any content can be laid. We can provide tangible manipulatives, customized resources, and entertaining metaphorical overlaps for any number of topics. To date, we’ve created customized resources in music, science, self-awareness, and social skills, to name a few.

Resources generally tend to be created for specific subject areas or content blocks, and assume a standardized development of skill. We develop our resource content based on the interests, potential interests, and needs of our clients. If we’re creating class sets for teachers, we work toward curriculum goals with social and academic areas in mind. When we consider large scale presentations, the design is aimed at subjects we believe will enliven, encourage, and engage. What interests parents and kids alike? What sparks the imagination? What do we all need to know, and how do we need to know it? We pair that content with manipulatives and anchoring resources, which we customize to be adaptable to the widest audience possible.

 Throughout all of these events, presentations, festivals, and sessions, one thing remains consistent across the ages and stages, content and framework: we are teaching, empowering, and modeling different ways of thinking. Content is malleable and process is paramount.

Our greatest passion is teaching young people methods and awareness of thought.  To think is to be.

There are many different modalities of thought. While the steps of writing a lab report can be memorized, it is more valuable to understand and employ scientific inquiry in a variety of situations. Where a small percentage of children will grow up to pursue the sciences in theoretical or practical form, the majority of children will benefit from awareness of the scientific method, a structured approach to thought. To be a scientist is to learn how to ask a question, look at available evidence, gather data to interpret reasonably, then determine what questions come next. This way of thinking is a skill once thought to be innate that is being lost or downplayed in our current climate.

Can thought be taught? It is a skill to employ thought deliberately. Scientific inquiry is a skill, in that there are specific tasks to be completed in a certain order, which can be learned, much like tying a shoe or cooking a soup. And as a skill, there are those who will learn more naturally, by observation or instinct, and those that need a more strategic, scaffolded approach. We, Sunshine and the Scientist, excel at modeling and scaffolding presentation and engagement.

Other modalities of thought are important as well. Sunshine places a lot of weight on philosophical inquiry, a way of thinking that allows one to ask questions, of hypothetical or actual nature, until a satisfying reasoning is formed. Philosophical inquiry enables communication, builds community, opens our minds to other perspectives, and develops one’s own beliefs. There are things people passionately believe that have been reasonably approached and there are things people believe passionately that have never been considered deliberately. Philosophers are thoughtful, deliberate, and open-minded. We aim to teach philosophical inquiry for this reason. 

Thinking empathetically, the needs of the one and the needs of the many are valuable and acknowledged. Empathetic, sensible thinkers are caring and kind, making for more civility and acceptance in the community at large. This way of thinking also enables the thinker to be more communicative and aware of their own needs. Learning how to prioritize the feelings of others is another way of thinking that can be acquired as a skill.

A state of synthesis is the effect of thinking musically, a way of gathering, processing, and deciphering information at a rapid rate. The senses are never more synchronous than when musicking, as a host of sensory inputs are bound by temporal constraints. To think musically is to combine sight, sound, movement, the presence of others and the self, and to find a harmonious balance in a metered, directed amount of time. It is objectively more engaging of the brain than any other modality of thought, due to the temporal element, and it enhances neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability and interest in learning). Sunshine and I are both musicians and are driven to communicate the benefits we’ve experienced first-hand from thinking musically.

Scientific, philosophical, empathetic, and musical thought modalities are but four of many ways to think. They represent different approaches to problem solving, connecting with others, and building community. The greatest thinkers are comfortable moving between thought modalities and help move society forward with innovation and imagination. 

This is what Kid Lit Motivates is aiming to provide. Social and academic content presented in engaging, memorable ways, intending to enhance and model a broader mechanism of thought, an open-mindedness, a structural belief in a movable, self-empowered and self-aware cognition.

The Scientist

Kid Lit Motivates is a small business, run by Sunshine and the Scientist, based in Long Island, New York, which designs custom educational resources and experiences for academic and social goals.

What the 4th is About, Really

The 4th of July was not a ceremonious date in our history. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t completed until mid-August.  On July 2nd, the press reported that we had declared our independence, and on July 4th, the Continental Congress approved the text of the Declaration, after making nearly 100 changes to the flowery, thickly philosophical prose which Jefferson had been soaking up and regurgitating from great philosophers.

As we celebrate today with cook-outs and fireworks, spare a thought for those colonists, who felt both ignored and oppressed by their ruler, who elected a congress to debate the proper course of action for dealing with the monarchy’s trampling of their rights as a united front. They were forlorn, exhausted, angered and shaken and they did what would become the first American act: they came together to overcome. Without knowing they’d be declaring their independence they did what we have struggled to do since: they moved our colonies as one (hotly debated, often agitated) voice.

There are definitely things in our country that need changing. People are struggling, forlorn, angered, and confused, and many have lost any solace in the structural integrity of a system that was intended (however slapshod and flawed) to uphold the rights of a majority (the definition of which has changed greatly, and for good reason.)

To correct the egregious issues, we must come together. Agree to put aside the smallest differences and take responsible action for the good of all. Stand together in the room and Find What Unites Us.  No matter how distasteful or aggravating or pointless the process may seem, no matter how disparate the vision.

That is really, truly, what July 4th, and what the United States is all about. As Lincoln said, nearly 100 years later, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”

Enjoy your celebration of the day, and the relaxing and recovering tomorrow. Consider what your country could really do for you, and what you can do for your fellow countrymen. Find the common ground for the common good.

The Wolf of the Workplace

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

[4] 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.

Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

Family Discussion Questions

Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.

  1. In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
  2. What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
  3. What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
  4. Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
  5. If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
Suggested Answers:
  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. “Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

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:

Part 1 The Fox and the Briefcase
Part 2 The Snapchat Gnat
Part 3 Friendly, Feathered Competition

Friendly Feathered Competition

[This is the 3rd part in the Modern Retellings series. Want to check out Part 1 The Fox and the Briefcase or Part 2 The Snapchat Gnat?]

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.

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

Family Dialog

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.

Please, Stop Asking Kids this One Question

By asking, you may be inadvertently creating a situation for your child that the question is intended to avoid. 

[This entry is informed by formal education and clinical experience. An earlier version of this entry appeared on the Kid Lit Motivates Resource Blog.]

[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?

No response. 

I did something fun today. 

No response. 

Can I tell you about my fun day? 

They shrug. 

 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 what happened 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 fabricating a 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: 

  1. Modeling an Unnatural Communication Style
  2. Setting an Unnecessary, yet Unintended, High Expectation
  3. Putting a Spotlight on an Uncomfortable Moment
  4. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?” 
  3. 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.

Summary

  1. Prompting a child with the question “Did you tell [person] about [thing]?” is not a functional conversation starter. 
  2. It may actually be creating a major problem in the child’s developing communication skills. 
  3. 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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