My husband and I have to be particularly careful about what we teach our son, because if he takes the wrong meaning or application, it can take literally months to unteach or reteach it. The most recent example is something that drives me crazy every single day: The simple word, “sorry.”
We initially taught the concept to our son in the context of apologizing after he’d done something naughty; he had to say “sorry” before he could come back downstairs after having “time-out” in his bedroom. He learnt very quickly that it made us happy to hear him say sorry, we’d reinforce the importance and function of the word with smiles and hugs, “that’s OK, let’s go back downstairs.”
To show him that adults say sorry too, and to further illustrate its application, I made a point of using the word when I made a mistake around him: “Sorry I knocked your pen off the table hon, here you go.” So he started to notice that it wasn’t just for when someone has been very naughty and sent to their room. To clarify I spelt it out to him in what I thought was careful terms. I wanted to make sure he understood that sometimes we have to apologise for unintentional injuries, I wanted to make sure I didn’t use the word “bad” since that implies moral fault, so I said something like this: “If you do something wrong on accident or on purpose, then you say sorry.”
Boy was that a big mistake.
He started – and continues – to say sorry for the slightest infringement. If he asks a question and the answer is “no” (even if he’s just asking whether he’s correct about what something is called), then he’ll say sorry. If he makes an error when he’s drawing (maybe the line goes further than where he’d intended it to stop), he’ll say sorry. If he’s in the other room and he’s done something that we can’t even see and hasn’t caused anyone or anything any harm, he’ll run up to us and say sorry.
And he doesn’t just say it once. He says it quickly over and over, until he is correctly acknowledged and reassured. The replying words have to be “that’s OK”. Variations like “alright” or “you don’t have to be sorry” or “there’s no problem honey”, don’t work; he’ll just keep saying sorry until he gets the right response. Sometimes I can’t respond fast enough for him, because I’m in the other room or busy with the baby, sometimes the quickness and “correctness” of my response makes no difference though. And the more he says “sorry”, the more upset he gets. He’ll even drive himself to tears and screaming as he endlessly repeats the word, at times ending in the sort of meltdown where his senses seem to shut down and nothing we do or say will make him calm and happy again.
I’ve tried to tell him he only has to say “sorry” once, to try to stop him getting so worked up with its repetition. But then he’ll say sorry for saying sorry more than once, or he’ll sit there getting frustrated and start silently crying (and then not so silently screaming the word anyway) if he tries to control the urge to say sorry endlessly.
I’ve also tried to unteach this very broad usage of sorry. I decided to introduce concrete instances of when he should say sorry. I told him to only say sorry if he accidentally or purposefully hurts someone or breaks something. He thought about that for a while, then added to it of his own accord; he said something along the lines of “only say sorry for hurting people, breaking, and throwing.” I said that was fine, and repeated back the three categories to him, hoping we’d made a break-through. Later I had to add “shouting” to the list of naughty things that deserve a sorry (shouting in a house with a sleeping baby is a rather big deal).
Even though he now knows he’s only meant to say sorry once, and what he’s meant to say it for, he still repeatedly says “sorry” for a huge array of issues, and gets all worked up towards the point of meltdown about it. I’m hoping that with enough repetition about how to use “sorry”, that it will sink in and the problem will fade in time. I’ve coped with similarly maddening behaviour many times with him. Saying “sorry” a lot might sound like a minor problem, but when it leads to his tears, screaming and meltdowns, when there was nothing to be sorry about in the first place – and when it can happen every few minutes and at least every half-hour of the day – it is highly intrusive to just getting on with life.
Being a parent of an autistic child requires immense patience, detailed observations and problem-solving skills, to figure out what is setting your child off and how to fix it. In my experience, there are always multiple issues that the child is struggling with at any point in their life, so you also have to pick and choose which ones to work on – working on them all at once is usually far too much for the child and parent to cope with, and can undercut the effectiveness compared to focusing on a couple at a time. We’ve overcome him not letting any strangers in the house; not letting me talk to anyone under any circumstances; biting toys to the point of making his lips bleed; hitting his head against the wall at night so that he got two balding patches; having meltdowns whenever he had to get out of a car at a new location, and so many countless other behaviours that it makes me teary eyed to even recall them. So we’ll overcome this too. Just one more problem, one day at a time, and eventually, one sorry at a time and at the right times.