“Bad Boy!” “You are such a Bad Boy!” How many times have I heard a child being berated in this way? Way, way too many times. Not just by parents but also by the supposedly trained and educated professionals.
Would these same people like it when they are told that they are “BAD”? “You Bad Mum”, “You Bad Dad”, or better yet, “You Bad Therapist”. How many of us are willing to take criticism with grace and dignity even when it is couched in diplomatic language? And yet we have no qualms about correcting our children in the most negative manner possible.
Is the person bad or the behavior bad? Why do we persist in labeling the child when it is the behavior we are unhappy with? We speak so much about not labeling the child at the time of diagnosis and speak about addressing the challenges instead. And yet, there is no hesitancy in using a label which is far worse than a diagnostic label of ASD.
Let us briefly look at few characteristics of individuals on the autism spectrum.
1) Individuals on the autism spectrum have a literal understanding of language. So when you say “Bad Boy” and think of how a child on the spectrum views this statement, it can take on a much more serious meaning than when a neurotypical child hears. Under no circumstances am I considering this a lesser crime when used with neurotypical children, but I am saying that the interpretations can be different for different children.
2) Individuals with autism have poor social motivation. This means that they are generally not motivated to interact with others. Would they really want to interact with people calling them bad?
3) Many individuals on the autism spectrum have echolalia. It is not uncommon for the child to turn around and call you bad. Or call someone else bad. Use the language you would like your child to speak.
4) Many of them have high levels of anxiety. They feel anxious about any kind of social interaction even without the added pressure of being told that they are bad.
5) Many high functioning children can have low self-esteem. Once they join school they also have to deal with bullying in school. The last thing they need is for their parents and care-givers adding to their problems.
When you are unhappy about your child’s behavior, it would help if you clearly state what it is you would like him to do. Stop and think through, what led to his behavior. Very often there is a reasonably good explanation. Maybe the child cannot say it to you in so many words, but careful, quiet observation on our part can help us understand why certain “bad” behavior occurs and we can always take steps to correct. And if you must use the word bad, it would be so much better to say, “bad behavior” instead of “bad boy”. Or what about saying, “that’s a naughty thing to do”.