Humour in Intentional Error; why my autistic son will fail your test.

The IQs of a large enough population are calcu...

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This is inspired by a post I’ve just read over at “The Tumultuous Truth”. I started writing a comment on Sharon’s post, and realised it was turning into post length, so I’ve decided to turn it into a proper post over here. Please read her original post first (it’s a nice short one. Mine unfortunately isn’t).

Much like Sharon’s son Harri, my son likes to “test” people. Once he’s familiar with a subject matter (colour, shape, letter names, etc), he finds it amusing to pretend to get the answers wrong. This is not just wishful thinking on my part; I’m not delusional about what he knows and doesn’t know. There are clear hints when he is playing someone: He’ll look out the side of his eye at them, with a sly smile on his face, watching carefully and gleefully for their reaction. This is compared to when he suspects he’s correct but has made an error; at those times he looks confused and thoughtful, rather than sly and happy. When he’s learning or he’s unsure or has made an error, he is slow to reply and takes time to process the information. When he is playing you for a fool, he is quick to reply and very (overly) sure of himself – it’s all part of the game. A game that confuses his teachers, friends and occasionally us too, but that clearly and significantly amuses him.

And it’s a pain. It can make it hard for his school teachers to figure out what he genuinely doesn’t understand, and so what he needs to be taught. It can also of course make it very hard if not completely pointless to assess and grade him, if one was so inclined. I think that from his perspective, there is joy in the game of pretending, and in seeing other people’s reactions. In order to overcome that joy, we have to provide extreme motivation (comparatively more joy) for a correct answer – such as an activity he really wants to do or food he wants to eat. The reward is not simply for getting the right answer, the reward is also for being serious instead of acting the goat.

The problem has been exacerbated by a kindly approach some of his teachers have used at school. They will sometimes offer up the wrong answer then make a big to-do about how silly that wrong answer was. The purpose of this is to reinforce the right versus wrong answer, to make sure the children don’t feel too upset about giving the wrong answers, and to keep lessons light-hearted and amusing. The upshot for my son, is sadly predictable though. I suspect this whole issue is going to become a central subject of a future IEP (it was mentioned briefly in the previous IEP, but since that was his first school IEP we had too much else to cover at the time).

This problem has gotten worse lately for another reason too. He has amped up his game. It lasts longer now, and he seems to have been working on his “poker face”. We’ll ask if he knows something and instead of his usual sideways look and sly smile, he’ll look away while he answers so we can’t read his face either way. He eventually reveals his game by laughing or getting irritated at us for actually thinking he didn’t know the right answer (earnestly sitting down to teach someone something they already have confident knowledge of, can be rather irritating to the learnee).

I’ve tried to out-deceive him, by pretending I don’t know that he really knows the right answer. I do this to remove the reinforcing satisfaction he gets from the laughter and silliness that would usually have followed. The problem is that this pretending is his main way of making jokes with us – a key form of silliness. So not laughing feels a tad cruel sometimes. I provide other ways to be silly together – tickles and physical humour and silly sounds. But for more complex verbal humour, and guaranteed giggles, it pretty much comes down to this deceit about what he actually knows. I don’t think I’d want to completely deprive him of it.

For now – though it can be annoying and confusing – I’m not excessively worried about this game of his, since he’s only just started school. He’s still learning what is expected of him at school, and how he might be assessed and any consequences for correct answers on such assessments. He faces so many other challenges right now – fine and gross motor skills, self-care, general language, food issues, behavioural, etc – that this sort of word play isn’t at the top of my daily-worries list. But it is a problem, and one we will have to face head-on some day if time and experience doesn’t gradually teach him when it’s OK to joke like this, and when it’s not.

Because of his autism – specifically the learning disability aspect tied in with communication problems – people already struggle to figure out what he does and does not know. Imagine applying an IQ test or a national standards school test to a child like mine, and trying to conclude from that his level of intelligence or knowledge. With this current game of his, the exercise would be farcical. Long term observations over days at the least, would be required to ascertain what he genuinely knew and didn’t know, because at any one instant he could be playing you for a fool. And if you thought a one-off test could measure my son’s intellect or knowledge, that is exactly what you would be. It would be a test of if he understood the function of a test, and wanted to take part in a test, which are different questions.

(If you find these questions of intelligence, testing intelligence and motivation to perform, as interesting as I do, I strongly suggest you read “IQ and Motivation” over at Neurologica Blog.)

I want to end this post by thanking Sharon for sharing her story about Harri, and thereby motivating me to share my own about my son. Writing this post has helped organise my thoughts about why my son does this, and how it might be corrected in time – and indeed how I should perhaps feel about it in the meantime. I don’t know whether this is a particularly autistic behaviour – some factors suggest it is, others not so much – regardless, it is an extra challenge for when people are trying to interact with and assess my son, which is hard enough without him finding humour in intentional error.

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7 Responses to Humour in Intentional Error; why my autistic son will fail your test.

  1. sharon says:

    You are so welcome. Great post.
    I relate to much of what you have written. Here’s the rub, I just forked out $1500 for a lengthy assessment only to sit down with the results and realise it did not truly reflect his capacity accurately. When he meets a therapist for the first time he always puts them through their paces to see how far he can push the boundaries. This inevitably screws with the assessment outcome. Sigh! I’m just going to roll with it and let them be pleasantly surprised once he stops playing.
    BTW I laughed at your son working on his poker face. Now that’s smart. I reckon we take away so much control from them during their therapy sessions, why wouldnt they try to find a way to take some back?

    • Gosh that’s a pricey assessment! I hope you get a lot of bang for that buck. I was impressed to see that the therapist you spoke about in your post was smart enough to pick up on your son testing them, and not just decide your child’s intelligence and knowledge had inexplicably rocketed up in a very short space of time (or decided the only explanation must be their own work with your son – that’s a classic). It strikes me that your Harri is a particularly smart cookie.

  2. Bill says:

    I raised a passel of kids, with some of them pretty geeky and unpopular, so I had my share of crank phone calls. I always answered the phone politely, and if I didn’t get an appropriate response, said in a monotonous voice that I couldn’t hear them, and would they please call back. I would then repeat the request in Spanish for good measure. Of course they would call back, to annoy me again, and again they would get the same boring, monotonous greeting and message. They would get it as many times as they called; eventually they would stop calling because it wasn’t fun- they hadn’t achieved their goal of eliciting emotion, and they wouldn’t call back ever again, because it just wasn’t fun.
    I raised my Aspie sons for the most part before anyone had ever heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. One of my sons is cursed with AS, one is more similar to myself, endowed with AS, but I also have a son who even today is an enigma to me, and reminds me a little of your son regarding toying with people. My son might have ADHD, he might have a touch of AS, but he clearly had a penchant for manipulating people’s emotions for his private pleasure. Countless times he started fights, countless times I watched him manipulate my wife, and I am sorry to admit to have taken the bait a few times too.
    The logical strategy to fight someone toying with you is to make it boring. Figure out what his reward mechanism is, and and make certain it never gets rewarded. He is pushing your buttons to get some sort of predictable yet interesting response, like watching fireworks. Make it a predictable yet boring response, like watching paint dry.

    • Gosh, I don’t think of my son as manipulative or toying with us in any nasty-type way, I really do think he’s only doing it because he thinks we’ll find humour in it too: He’s a very gentle boy, very careful and affectionate with his younger brother, and he gets particularly upset if anyone else is sad or angry (he didn’t used to be this way – he used to be violent and largely indifferent to people’s emotions, as best we could tell at the time anyway).

      I generally agree with your “make it boring” approach to knocking out the undesirable behaviour, I just need to be careful to first accurately identify what the behaviour is trying to achieve, and make sure I don’t consequently knock out other positive outcomes he was seeking (usually by providing alternative opportunities for those other outcomes to be achieved, once they have been identified). It’s never simple is it!

      It will be particularly informative and interesting to see how he responds to a formal testing situation within the schooling enviornment; that should highlight how well he understands testing as an activity.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. sharon says:

    Agree 100% Bill, it’s just that sometimes it takes a while to know youre being played.

  4. Hi again! Jude (6) does this too. It was hilarious at first but less so over time. I think it is partly about sense of humour and partly about control….Obviously different things work for different children, but, being a very visual chappy we tried this:
    Give him a piece of paper with 2 columns – one with a tick and one with a cross.
    Ask him to put the right answer under the tick and the wrong one under the cross.
    Sounds crazily simple but worked instantly! I use it now when we’re out and about too. Of course it depends on reading/writing skills but can work with symbols or little drawings too….. Worth a try? xx

    • Definitely worth a try! He’s currently passionate about ticks and crosses since they use them at school, so a particularly good suggestion. I’ll look at how to implement it best with his current abilities. Thank you!

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