A few years ago, we used to wake in the morning and find an empty and clean fridge and freezer. Ethan used to wake up in the middle of the night and take everything out of the fridge and freezer, put the food on the counter and make sure the fridge and freezer were clean. We struggled for months before we finally realized that the school had been teaching Ethan to clean the fridge at school and Ethan was just doing his homework.
Just last week another parent told me a similar story and that was the impetus for this article about the unintended consequences of our actions especially with children who have OCD tendencies.
Many schools in their quest to teach our children functional skills teach them how to clean a table. The teachers go to great lengths to show the kids how to remove everything from the table top and then wipe the table down. Unfortunately, after a few years of cleanliness instruction, our kids start cleaning tables at home. Never mind the fact that the food they throw out may be tonight’s dinner or leftovers that should have been put back in the fridge, our kids have been taught well and always complete the task.
Laundry is yet another task that our kids are taught. Most schools have a washer and dryer in the severe classes. They teach the kids how to do the laundry. Many years later, you have a child that insists on using the machine to wash their pajamas every day. They are unable to wait until you have a full load to do the laundry because the job needs to be done “right now.”
Another “favorite” is the visual schedule with allocated times. For example 8:00 Math, 10:00 language, 12:00 lunch etc. The idea here is to keep the child on task and provide them with a schedule for the day. After a few years of scheduling, the child learns that at noon they eat lunch and actually become inflexible. If something happens and they are not given lunch at exactly noon, they tantrum etc. and the cycle continues.
The list of snafus goes on and on because we are so focused on achieving short-term goals in order to teach our kids new skills that no one is thinking through the long term consequences of these goals. Unfortunately, most teachers/therapists who work with the young kids never have the opportunity to work with teenagers or even adults and experience firsthand the consequences of their actions.
In my book, the focus at school needs to be teaching communication, cooperation and academics. Functional skills should wait until the kids are able to communicate and understand the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately all the research on functional skills was done on populations that were not autistic and then extrapolated to the autistic population. The research is wrong and as a result, it is up to us, the parents, to think long term and question any goals that may have unintended consequences.
By Dalia Shkedy – Ethan’s Mom