The Tattle-Tale Autistic

Why do we tell children not to be tattle-tales; not to tell an authority figure when someone else has done something wrong? In theory it is because we want them to work on the issue themselves and find their own solutions, or because we suspect they are lying, or we think they’re simply trying to cause trouble over something trivial. A more cynical person might say it’s because we can’t be bothered parenting the problem. When I was a child I never thought it fair to be called a name by adults just because I was letting them know someone else had done something wrong. Now, as a parent, I still feel the same, only much stronger, because of my son’s autism.

The issue was highlighted for me in a recent incident. We were visiting family. Another child had done something inappropriate, that my son knew was inappropriate, out of the eye-range of us adults. My son came rushing inside the home to tell the adults what had happened. Before I could praise him for letting me know what had happened and either talk him through what to do or done it myself, another adult family member asked him if he was “telling tales.” And another piped up to say he was being a “tattle-tale.” The reaction confused my son, as well it should. Because I have been working hard on encouraging my son to do exactly what he did.

My son does not talk easily or readily about what he experiences, because he struggles with the words and with the point of recounting what he does. Not only do we encourage him to talk more, and talk about what he’s seen and done for the sake of language and social skills, but we also encourage it for the sake of his own safety: We need to know if another child is hurting or otherwise abusing our son – this is all the more important as he’s about to start a mainstream school for the first time, where teacher ratios and his own differences mark him out as a potential easy target for bullies.

Furthermore, my son is still learning the appropriate reactions to uncertain or unusual situations, so each time he shares with me I have the chance to guide him on what the behaviours mean and what he should do about it. Just because my son comes and tells me what someone else has done wrong, doesn’t mean I will decide it is appropriate to intervene for him, sometimes I will tell him what to do about it (if anything) and send him on his way.

Add to all this the fact that my son is honest (to a fault), he doesn’t lie about such things, it’s just not in his make-up to do so.

Whatever I might do when he comes to me, I would never greet his efforts to pass on this information, with the label of “tattle-tale.” I would never belittle his attempts to communicate and to share, with such a dismissive turn of phrase. I found it quite disturbing that other adults – adults who know him and his challenges – would be so ready to call him a tattle-tale. It concerns me then what other adults who don’t know him so well – like his new school teachers – will do when he goes to them with his concerns and experiences.

I guess all I can do – besides taking the chance to educate adults who I see doing this in front of me – is make sure my son knows that his own mother will always want to hear it. That I want to know how his day was, what happened, who did something naughty, help him understand whether it was actually naughty and what he should do about it. That way even if his teachers and other adults won’t hear him or value his words, I can advocate on his behalf as someone who does care. I can encourage him towards being able to cope with these situations himself, and guide him to do the right thing, so eventually he will no longer need or want to run every naughty event past me anymore. But he is nowhere near that point yet, and even if he was and when he is, I won’t be calling him names to get him to stop it.

I do not take my son’s voice for granted, there was a time when hearing meaningful words from him at all was rare, his social communication was hard-fought for, and hard-won. My son can tell me all the tales he wants.

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9 Responses to The Tattle-Tale Autistic

  1. Zoe says:

    I’m with you on this, for all children. So many children are abused or bullied and if they have been told off for being a tell-tale about one thing, they are less likely to go to adults for help with anything else. The recent spate of people coming forward to add their voice to the numbers who were sexually abused by a famous television presenter just goes to show that children aren’t able to tell people when bad things happen and I for one would rather help my children choose the right course of action than allow them to be told not to tell by someone who didn’t have their best interests at heart. Adding to this the way our children see ‘rules’ about behaviour, confusing them like this jut isn’t fair. Shame on those adults!

  2. keith says:

    I think this will become a very familiar pattern for your son. People without autism derive their truths from social hierarchies, not from words that people say. Autistics going around saying true things is completely foreign to them, they just see someone on a low rung in the hierarchy speaking and therefore by definition lying. Although I never grassed up anyone because I was born with a strong sense of personal responsibility, and I consider non-autistic grasses to be have been raised wrongly.

  3. You have a great perspective on this. I like the way you’re approaching it.

  4. Ellen says:

    I am always amazed when an adult’s first reaction to something a child says is to assume the child is lying. How many times have you heard “are you sure” or another display of disbelief when an adult responds to a child, even her own child. This is one reaction you imagined as a reason for the response your son got. I think we need to try to create a culture where children feel safe to tell us what really happened and we respond with the right mix of requiring independent problem solving or help when they need it. Your reasons for taking this path are acute, but it would help every child. Read “Nurtureshock” for more insight on is, especially as it relates to bullying.

  5. Teresa says:

    I’m so freaking glad I found this. I can’t understand what this new campaign against “tattling” is. Our kids are in kindergarten through 3rd and the teachers constantly scold the child who is reporting. How do we reconcile this with the other EXTRAORDINARILY important “make sure you report to is when someone is being inappropriate with you”message”. Regardless we have spoken to our children and told them they are absolutely allowed to “tell on” kids when they curse, flash their private parts, or vandalize school property (all infractions that have occurred in the past two months at school). Thank you for taking the time to address this issue.

  6. Traci says:

    Thank you for this. I am currently debating this issue with my 7y.o. son. I have frequently needed to remind my son to take any problems to an adult and he or she will help you, but the “tattling” certainly has an impact on peer relations. My son takes rule infractions very seriously i.e. If the children have been told to stand behind the line, they must be behind it. If you stand on the line, my son will make sure an adult knows about it. Children naturally do not take to being called out for such trivial things ( in their mind) and adults soon get weary of correcting all these infractions. How do you feel about the idea that sometimes it is okay to let it go and how to explain this to a autistic child? Thank you

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