Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and three other award-winning books on autism. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit her website or find her on Facebook at Ellen Notbohm, Author.
A Thing Worth Having
“Anything worth having is worth cheating for,” declared W.C. Fields. One need only look to the newspapers to know that too many people agree. Corruption in politics and business is rampant, athletes ingest illicit body-altering substances, students copy essays off the Internet and their parents sue the teachers who flunk them for it.
Cheating has always been with us, but it’s one aspect of the human condition where some ASD kids, with their sometimes-infuriating black-and-white thinking, are loftily, naturally, above the fray. Back in 6th grade, Bryce brought home a school assignment with two questions to answer: What is a role model? How should a role model act? He had very little trouble responding. A role model, he wrote, is someone you admire. His role models: parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, big brother, cousins and teachers.
How should they act? Don’t cheat, he wrote. Speak politely and work hard.
We were all thereby put on notice.
I didn’t get to know my grandfather, who passed away when I was only four. But I once asked my father what he would tell me about his dad if he could only say one thing. He didn’t hesitate with his reply: “He had a great deal of integrity. He never stiffed anyone in his whole life.”
Nature or nurture? I think the black-and-white wrongness of cheating may be pronounced in children with autism, but there is also an element of choice in there. It’s one of the subjects I muse about when I’m in one of my “Bryce is right and the rest of the world is wrong” moods. It is one of the gifts autism has given our family. Children aren’t born knowing how to cheat and wanting to cheat. It is learned in a society that rewards achievement over honesty, winning over trying, the result over the effort. When Connor was in the process of being diagnosed with ADHD, he spent a number of sessions with a psychologist. After one meeting, she had noted a number of atypical things about him, including “he doesn’t cheat at games.” They had been playing Candyland. Well, he had better not, I had replied righteously. What’s to cheat at Candyland? “All kids cheat,” was her reply, even though Connor had just disproved the statement. What she meant was, when children are very young, the moral aspect of cheating is absent; they are just playing. But how will they learn that grabbing that extra turn with the dice is not OK, if that gentle adult intervention isn’t there from the start? “Just playing.” Is that like “just teasing” – which escalates into harassment and bullying?
We should all be a little unsettled with the knowledge that every day in a hundred little ways, we adults look the other way at wrongness and deception and assume it goes over the heads of our children. Then one memorable day we get it in the face, such as the day on which a young Connor came to me with a Curious George book in hand. “The Man in the Yellow Hat is a POACHER. That is another word for ANIMAL SMUGGLER,” he declared furiously. Indeed, it’s right there in the text – George is happy living in Africa, the Man with the Yellow Hat trapped him with his hat, “popped him into a bag” and took him home. I have to admit I was stunned at how this simple fact had flown under my radar for all the decades of my life. Curious George was never quite the same for me. And that was as it should be, according to Connor, because The Man in the Yellow Hat was a LOSER. “He probably couldn’t bag an elephant, so he thought, why not a baby monkey?!”
Bryce seems to have an innate sense of right and wrong, for which I am on-my-knees grateful, as any parent would be. But that ultra-rigid, black-and-white sense of justice did present constant challenge in helping him understand social nuances within the human condition. The older he grew, the more questions he asked about the shades of gray that pervade such things. Is it cheating to knowingly put down a misspelled Scrabble word if you are pretty sure your opponent won’t notice? To watch the movie if you don’t finish the book, and answer the book report questions from that? Is it stealing to keep the extra money if a store clerk gives you the wrong change? If you sample the grapes to see if they are sour? And, as he got older, he learned that there are different names for different kinds of cheating, all of them ignoble. Claiming someone’s else writing as your own is cheating; it’s called plagiarism . Loosening the bolt on your race opponent’s bike or car is cheating; it’s called sabotage. Lying to gain something that isn’t rightfully yours is cheating; it’s called “conning.” Trick, swindle, deceive, defraud, bamboozle, dupe or bilk – all forms of deception, all soundly rejected by Bryce’s unbendable sense of honor.
All of us found our actions under the Brycroscope. When you have a child who craves a concrete explanation for the (abstract) ways of the world, you will meet challenge instilling the ability to ‘do the right thing’ when ‘the right thing’ is a permutation of a wrong thing – such as a white lie. White lies are rooted in consideration for the feelings of others, something upon which children with ASD may place a value lesser than that of pure fact. Patience explanation over a long period of time may be the only route. We knew we had arrived there on the day I asked Bryce to write a thank-you note for a gift he hadn’t particularly liked. “I’ll write a white lie,” he said. I must have looked surprised because I then received the same sort of patient explanation: “A white lie is when you say something other than the truth in order to make someone feel better. Like saying the dinner was delicious when it wasn’t.” He had heard this explanation in a movie, and it finally registered.
Computer operator: This machine will now tell us the precise location of the three remaining Gold Tickets.
Computer read-out: I won’t tell. That would be cheating.
~ “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Warner Brothers, 1971
I have seen that even the youngest children can understand the ignominy of cheating, even in situations that “don’t matter.” Some years before Bryce was born, my brother’s family and mine began vacationing together each summer in a house bordering a golf course at an Oregon resort. The location brought about all kinds of fun. Balls would come flying into the rough – which was also our backyard – and our little boys would run out to snatch them. An ever-lengthening line of golf balls marched down the mantel as the week progressed. Muffled shrieks of glee would vibrate behind the patio door as the wee thieves watched hapless golfers conduct futile searches, sometimes timing them to see how long they’d last before giving up. (Yes, it was stealing, which arguably is as bad as cheating, and this was long before I had a concrete-thinking child with autism to answer to. Standing trial for the crime of sending mixed messages, Judge Bryce presiding, was still in my distant future.) But I told the boys, Aunt Ellie is a big believer in Civil Disobedience. You see, over the years we observed many, many golfers from the deck of that house on the 5th fairway. We didn’t start confiscating balls until we had ascertained that an astonishing percentage of those golfers played fast and loose with the rules of sportsmanship. These guys were brazen cheaters. (Yes, guys. We never did see any lady golfers do it.) It was always the same. The furtive glancing around when the ball was located. The tip-toeing back to the green and placing the ball just so on the edge. The “Oh! Here it is! Phew – I just lucked out!” The kids, at that time aged about 5 – 8, never failed to regard this as outrageous behavior.
On a perfect August morning, the boys and I decided to strike a blow for truth-in-golfing. Not content to giggle inside the house any longer, we snuck outside and concealed ourselves behind a very large tree just as the first ball of the day came sailing through the woods. The owner of the ball appeared the predictable number of moments later. He had just taken the requisite look over his shoulder; his fingertips had barely grazed the ball (neatly wedged under a dead log) when I boomed in my best God-sounding baritone: “THAAAAAAT’S CHEEEEEEATING!!!!!”
That poor guy. I don’t think he experienced actual heart failure but he definitely suffered some virtual angina, plus whiplash as his head whirled way past 180 degrees searching out his accuser. Ever had that feeling of not really believing something, but at the same time being afraid to not believe it? That guy knew. It was all over his face.
So now you know why one of my all-time favorite comic strips is an old BC panel wherein caveman Peter, inventor of philosophy, is teaching Cute Chick to play golf. Let me see if I understand, she says. The less I hit the ball, the better it is?
That’s right, he beams back.
Then why do it at all? she asks.
In the last frame of the strip, it’s nighttime. The moon glows above. Peter is hunched over his prehistoric nine-iron, vacant eyes turned heavenward as he ponders, “Why….do it…..at all?”
So logical. Makes you wonder if there are any golfers with autism. But the same can be said of cheating: why do it at all?
We may call Bryce’s black-and-white sense of justice a feature of his autism, but there is another name for it: integrity. “I wish I was like Bryce,” one of his third-grade classmates wailed, after some minor behavioral lapse. “Bryce always gets it right.” Bryce wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) necessarily agree, but like his grandfather and great-grandfather father before him, integrity is one of the hallmarks of his life. Autism or inherited? He doesn’t have to work at it; it just is. It’s a profound legacy, one to which I am still aspiring – neither Dad nor Bryce wouldn’t have nabbed those golf balls. Dad would have thought that, to a golfer, having us merely sit on the deck, openly but silently witnessing his indignity would be punishment enough. Bryce, had he been around at the time, would have matter-of-factly offered, “You know, you really shouldn’t cheat.”
Don’t cheat, speak politely, work hard. Shall we heed the wisdom of autism? If we can do this, it will be Sam Cooke and not W. C. Fields who prevails: “….what a wonderful world this would be.”
Copyright Ellen Notbohm 2007