Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Nitty-Gritty Encounter with an Angry Yekke

Movies and Chinese at the synagogue was a nice time.
The food was good. The movie was Operation Thunderbolt, the Israeli film version of the raid on Entebbe. We have all seen the movie, with the exception of A., but we enjoyed it again. A. did not know much about the raid on Entebbe and enjoyed it the first time.

After the movie and after eating, we let the kids socialize while we talked with some adults around us. And as I was talking to a couple of pretty good friends, I had one of those nitty-gritty moments in which my parenting, for lack of a better term, was called into question.

Mrs. K., a woman that I know only slightly came marching up while I was talking. I finished kibbitzing with the people around me, and they moved off. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hi, (first name).
Mrs. K.: How old is N.?
Me: (not grokking the context) Oh, he'll be fourteen this coming Friday.
Mrs. K.: Well! Ever since I've known him, and I used to help out at (name of school), N. has been making messes and wandering off!
(I always get nervous when people start talking in exclamation points. I was further non-plussed here by the reference to N.'s second grade year. It's been seven years since then. I decided to stay calm and see what transpired).
Me: And...?
Mrs. K.: N. made a mess with some fortune-cookie wrappers. I told him to pick them up, but he didn't. (She seemed more angry than the situation warranted. I was wondering what else happened).
Me: Where did this happen? (I hadn't noticed any commotion in the room).
Mrs. K. (pointing to the foyer): There. Finally, I had to tell my son to pick them up!
Me (wondering about the intensity of her feeling): Was N. rude to you?
Mrs. K: No. He ignored me.

Now there was a lot I could have asked at this point. I was wondering if she got N.'s attention before she spoke to him, because N. has AS and is often oblivious to what is going on around him. I also wondered why she was so emotional about the situation. It sounded like a fairly straightforward encounter in which she could have pressed her advantage as the adult and gotten N. to do what he was told fairly easily. And why was she so angry if N. had not said anything rude?

I was also feeling a little defensive. I was thinking back to N.'s second-grade year at the school she mentioned. I had never heard that there were any problems of that sort back then, had I? No other person has ever mentioned these sorts of problems with N. that year. Why hadn't someone brought it up with me then? Have I been oblivious to this obvious imperfection in my child for the past seven years? Wow. I must not be a very good parent.

And what is this about N.'s age? As the mother of a child with neurological impairments, I was instantly thrown back to the days when, as I struggled to pull my overwhelmed sensory-sensitive five year old out from under a table where he took refuge from chaos, people would tell me that I should "give him something real to cry about." I would hear comments about how no child "his age" should act that way. If they were the parent, they would see to it that he behaved, by god! And I would bitterly think that if they were the parent, they'd probably be jailed for child abuse before they would get a child with autism to "behave" given their ignorance of the child and the situation.

Inside the woman that I have become, the mother of a child with ASD, the professional with expertise on autism, still lives the new mother who wanted to avoid going out in public in order to protect a fragile sense of worth from such judgement by asses--you know, those who assume expertise without knowledge. Those who know best because they are ignorant of the complexities of other lives. Inside of me during the present encounter anger was building, as I imagined the gossip that had gone on about me and N. among some of these ignoramuses seven years ago. And so I did what my mother told me to do when encountering anger. I counted to ten. It has taken me nearly fifty years to become consistent at taking my mom's advice.

Anything I said to this woman about N.'s disability would just be perceived as excuses. Besides, she was carrying bad feelings from years ago, and probably had gossiped about over the years, nurturing her image of my son into a foil against which to measure her parenting as much better than mine. The problem was really more hers than mine. When dealing with any child, not just one with AS, it is a good idea to get his attention and talk calmly to him one-on-one to get the desired results. That's just good communication. Maybe N.'s reaction was because he had not even noticed the situation. He is, by definition, oblivious to the social situations happening around him. Maybe her anger made him shut down. He does not understand strong emotions in others and is often frightened by them. And maybe he was just acting like a young teenager. That would actually be improvement for him! I didn't know. So I decided that the best course of action was to mollify this woman and see what was going on with N.

Me: Oh, I'm sorry, Mrs. K. I was momentarily distracted and I didn't realize what was happening. I will speak to N. straight away. That's him, over there. Would you please excuse me?

I pulled N. from a scrum of children reaching for chocolate cake, and brought him to the lounge where it was quiet. I asked him what had transpired.

Me: Honey, did something happen with Mrs. K.?
N: Mrs. K.?
Me: Did you notice Mrs. K. in the foyer a while ago?
N: Oh, yeah. She was yelling at I. (her son) to pick up something from the floor. She was mad, so I left."

He had noticed her, but was totally oblivious to his part in the encounter. He was afraid of her strong emotions, and he had cleared out. He did ignore her, but for different reasons than she assumed. He missed the social context completely. It was understandable to anyone who knows something about AS. At the same time, it was a teachable moment for me and my son.

Me: Boychick, Mrs. K. had a different idea about what happened out there. Listen and I'll explain.

I told him what her point of view was and why it was important. I told him that when adults come to talk to kids, it's best to pay attention. We practiced the proper way to respond politely to an angry adult. Then I took him over to apologize to Mrs. K. for not picking up the wrappers. I explained to N. that I understood that he had not deliberately been rude to her, but that sometimes, for "social reasons," apologizing is the best response.

We have talked many times about the different needs of neurotypicals, and that sometimes it's best to mollify them and get on with life. It makes things go more easily in future encounters. This is what we mean when we say "social reasons."

Later N said: Mom, is Mrs. K. a Yekke?"

"Yekke" is the Israeli appellation for a German Jew. Someone obsessed with order and orders. Someone who always wears a jacket (yekke) and tie, even when the temperature climbs above 100 degrees during the hamsim. Someone who has all their cups lined up in order in the cupboard, and has the same standards for the rest of the world. Someone who is not comfortable unless they are getting the sabras (native Israelis) up to snuff.

Me: I don't know, darling. But remember, our congregation is a yekke congregation. Rabbi S.'s congregation is more relaxed. The rules are different in each place.

This is true. Reform Judaism has a certain formalistic cobb up its collective butt. That's why we do the fun holidays like Purim at Chabad. There, people are too busy kibbitzing and dancing to notice a few messes. A round of schnapps, and the world looks pretty good just as it is. The place is always in a state of incipient disorder anyway. And nobody cares. We all pitch in to pick up later.

Each congregation has its own, endearing and sometimes, exasperating qualities.

But different rules for different places are hard for Aspies to grasp. We are working on it.
And I think that the learning we did yesterday was good learning.
But I have no illusions that N. will consolidate this learning and act perfectly according to yekke standards in his next encounter with Mrs. K. In fact, I counseled him to avoid run-ins with her.

Why should we become further grist for the congregational yekke gossip mill?


Frankie said...

You have such grace with people and in your parenting. Well done.

Mama Squirrel said...

I don't think I would have been able to handle that situation so graciously--a great example for non-AS parents as well.

Melora said...

Wow! You handled that so well, and in such a positive way for N. I wish I could remember to count to ten those times when I really need to.
Ed has suggested a couple times this week that we try a different church because Travis has been having trouble with a boy (a powerful boy) in our congregation. I keep telling Ed that Travis needs to learn to get along with difficult people. Travis's problem, aside from the fact that he can be an incredibly irritating goofball who just doesn't know when to quit, is that he is dealing with a boy pays attention to where the grownups are and plans his "moves" so that He comes off smelling like a rose. Travis's social skills are not always all they should be, but he has a good heart, and I tell him that I don't Want him to be good at being sneaky, I just want him to learn to avoid or just be distantly polite to troublemaking kids. This is apparently a difficult skill.
All this about me and mine to say that I sympathize with your situation. It would really upset me to think that that clueless woman had been talking about my child, and I really admire your wisdom in dealing with her and recognizing that her ignorance and anger are her problem. The other synagogue sounds nicer, although I am one who enjoys a formal service.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, everyone.

Frankie: Actually, it has taken me many years to get to where I think before I respond in situations like this one. I was the type to beat my head against a brick wall a bit--I think because I have autism characteristics that go under the radar most of the time, I expected that people would be understanding if they only knew all the detail. I shared this because I have finally gotten it that sometimes an apology, even when undeserved, is better than a fight!

Mama Squirrel: Yep. All kids commit social gaffes, are oblivious at times, and act, well, like kids. But there are those parents who bolster their fragile egos by the kinds of implications that I related. It has, as I said above, taken me a long time to realize that the problem lies with them, not with me. Now, I guess I can start wearing purple, too! :)

Melora: I like hearing how other people handle these things. Most kids can be irritating goofballs, especially if they are a little lacking in the social and political skills. Having taught school, I have met kids like the boy you are describing. I call them budding politicians. Honestly, I prefer the irritating goofballs. They are what they are and that's easier to deal with.
I know what you mean about the differences in congregations. I like the Reform congregation for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I get to read Torah, but the Chabad is just so much friendlier. Gossip is discouraged there and there is this Jewish-flavored sweetness that I really enjoy. Plus the food is the best I've had in a long time!

Kathy Jo DeVore said...

*sigh* I'm thinking that, given another ten years, I might still be more likely to tell a woman like that to kiss my ass than to apologize. I think it's because I'd still rather fight than give an unwarranted apology, and I still believe "that people would be understanding if they only knew all the detail."

But maybe there's hope for me. :} Well done on your part.

momof3feistykids said...

Ugh! Why did she have to handle the situation so rudely?

Echoing what others have said -- you handled it beautifully. You were gracious to the "Yekke," and you took advantage of a teachable moment for N.

One of the things I do *not* miss about public school is the judgments people made on my Aspergian kiddo (and on me). After her first few weeks at Kindergarten, her teacher made a point of recommending that I take a parenting class.

I have to confess I've made our world a bit sheltered. We home school, we stopped attending church (for various reasons) about 4 years ago, and we stick with a VERY relaxed coop which includes several families with kids on the spectrum. In time this will change, I am sure, and I hope I handle things as intelligently and graciously as you did. :-)

Sarah at SmallWorld said...

Wonderful post. This reminds me both to mind my own parenting business and to count to 10 when I feel my own parenting being criticized!

Amie said...

Like others have mentioned, I think you handled it well.

Debby said...

I've found that the people at our local Chabad are a lot more kid friendly (not just ASD friendly) in general. We're not into the "my first grader is going to Harvard" competitions.

And my MIL wonders why we didn't join the local reform congregation when we moved....

The Correspondent said...

I found your blog from a Common Room link. I really enjoyed this post, and I included a link to it from my blog.

The Correspondent