A Sad Story of Sorries


Image by djniks via Flickr

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.

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13 Responses to A Sad Story of Sorries

  1. Bill says:

    I am endowed with Asperger’s.

    As much trouble as I had raising my Aspies, I see my troubles were minor in comparison to you parents raising kids with full blown autism. I suspect as a parent you may be more expert at raising an autistic child than I am, but I’ll try throwing something at you since I “think” like an autistic person; driven by logic.

    I speak several languages, and German is one of them. There isn’t a German word like sorry; instead one would say “Es tut mir lied”(es toot meer lite), which translates literally as, “it does me sorrow”, though “lied” can also be translated as grief, regret or harm. The German is demonstrating his empathy for having hurt you.
    Your child is using sorry when he hasn’t caused harm, he hasn’t hurt. Most of his inappropriate uses would be when he hasn’t hurt or harmed. So when he says “sorry” at an inappropriate time, I could see a couple of different logical strategies to try. You could ask him “Who did you hurt?”, or you could say “I wasn’t hurt!”
    If he kept saying “sorry” over and over, I would keep repeating the same questioning response over and over and over as long as it takes him to figure out the logic of what we in the world of logic call an “infinite loop”. Don’t be the one to melt down; just keep giving him the same monotonous response, without anger, without frustration, even if it takes hours. (We had some marathon battles of will with our Aspies that lasted hours with my wife and I both literally sitting on our sons until the child understood our resolve.)
    (BTW my youngest Aspie son graduated from college Sunday with a degree in actuarial science.)

    • Thank you for the suggestion Bill, I really appreciate it, and will give it a go when he gets home from school this afternoon.

      And an enormous congratulations to your son for getting his degree! You must be so incredibly proud of him! Well done to you too for all the support and encouragement you’ve given him over the years that would have helped him to reach that achievement. Excellent news 🙂

  2. Jack says:

    While no-where as intense as your example, our son basically says ‘no’ after every question. While 6 months ago we would have done anything for him to reply to a question with a verbal answer, it’s getting a bit tiresome. I guess all kids go through the ‘no’ stage, I just hope it’s a normal toddler thing rather than an ASD thing.

    • Going on personal experience, I think it might be a stage – but a more extreme version of it and a delayed one. My NT one-year-old currently says “no” to every question, he seems to understand that is a correct response to a question (though he does very occassionally say “yes” to questions too). My ASD five year-old definitely did not go through such a stage at such an early age as his brother, but since he was largely non-verbal until the last couple of years, that’s not too surprising. Instead he just didn’t answer our questions, or would just look at us, or repeat back the end of whatever the sentence had been (echolalia). My eldest didn’t start using “yes” as a response to a question until he was four (I have strong memories of that special day – I was so incredibly happy that he was finally answering “yes”).

      I’m sure your son will get past this stage (if that’s what it is), as his language starts to come in more. Though I know in the meantime it really can drive you round the bend; you have my understanding and sympathy, for what that’s worth.

    • Aspergirl Maybe says:

      My son had a knee-jerk “no” to every question for a while too, and I have a theory about it (although it may be completely wrong, so feel free to tell me it doesn’t make any sense!). I guessed that he needed time to process the question but had learned that people expected an answer right away, so he just said “no” all the time automatically to be done with the interaction.

      Or it could have been that he wasn’t attending enough to hear the question and figured it was safer to say no if he wasn’t sure what he would be agreeing to! I did eventually start telling him I wanted to ask him a question and waiting until I had his attention before asking it, and that seemed to cue him to take a bit more time to really listen and respond.

      • Jack says:

        Thanks for the comments. It could be as you say Aspergirl Maybe. When he points to something and we ask him if he wants some (like juice or biscuits) he tries to say yes, tries to nod his head or just repeat the word. But if we ask him if he wants to do something, like a bath which he loves, he straight away says no.
        A bit off topic, but my son loves baths and water in general. Currently in the bath he lies down completely straight on his back, most of his head under the surface with only his mouth, nose and eyes over. He just lies there, calm and peaceful. I guess it’s a way to dull the sound but increase the touch senses.
        So its always strange how he says ‘no’ when he really loves something.

  3. nostromo says:

    Before my son stopped talking, the word sorry was in his repetoire. Except he must have taken its meaning from an incident where one of us bumped him or similar and then apologised, because when he’d hurt himself in some way, he’d sit there with tears in his eyes looking into space and saying ‘sowwy, sowwy’ !

    • It does seem that the idea of “sorry” is so laden with social interactions, emotions and such a variety of events, that it’s just one of those challenging concepts, particularly for ASD children?

      It’s very interesting to hear about similar experiences / confusions as what we’re going through with our son. It’s sad too, but I’d still rather hear about and share these stories, than not. They provide good opportunities to also share potential solutions and insights, as well as realise we’re not alone in these struggles.

  4. Aspergirl Maybe says:

    I wish I had some flash of inspiration that would be helpful to you. I was originally going to say that we haven’t had any type of things where our son required a particular response, but I did have a memory of him as a toddler wanting us to turn a handle that would make some interlocking gears go around very fast. It was too hard for him to do fast enough or long enough and he would get quite upset if we didn’t do it. But that sort of sounds different from what you are experiencing – this seems less clear cut as to whether he is trying to get something from you or whether it is a more OCD type behavior. Do you have anyone on your team who is good at figuring out these sorts of things?

    • We have access to an occupational therapist and a speech therapist through his school, who might have some ideas, but I don’t meet with them regularly (although he does in class). We keep contact a little via a notebook that travels back and forth, but it would be insufficint for explaining and discussing the problem. I might ask them to give me a phone call when they get a moment, to talk it through. That was a good thought Aspergirl Maybe – I hadn’t really considered contacting them for extra help with the issue. I might even print out this post so I don’t have to try to explain everything again; it’s hard to get all the detail in otherwise. I’ll think about the best way to approach them.

      • Aspergirl Maybe says:

        I have started to rely on the team much more in the last year or so, and it has been helpful. It also has had the side effect of improving our working relationship, as they recognize that I am valuing their input.

        Also, they might be seeing it at school and just hadn’t thought to mention it to you either!

        Good luck!

  5. KDL says:

    A couple of years ago my daughter used to do things to other kids on purpose so she could say sorry to them. She just loves attention and figured out this was one type of interaction that would always get her some attention. It took a while to get her to understand that you couldn’t hurt someone just for the satisfaction of saying sorry.

    I wonder if giving your son a different word for certain mistakes or situations would help. We like “Uh Oh” and “oops” a lot.

    So for the drawing thing for instance if he makes his line a little too long you could try saying “OOPS” really dramatically before he has a chance to get into his “sorry” routine. Then say, “It’s okay, just a mistake, we can fix it” or whatever you think will help him stay calm.

    I also wonder if a social story about “sorry” would help, but I just love social stories, so that is something I always like to try. I know we helped my daughter get past some misconceptions about birthdays with a social story. It changed her behavior immediately and helped so much.

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