When My Non-Verbal Son Is Naughty, Not Confused

My son gets the benefit of the doubt more often than not. He has an adorable, chubby, and squeezable face that would get any kid out of trouble. The fact that he’s non-verbal with autism, though, takes his ability to skip away from consequences to a new level.

The assumption, by many, is that he just “doesn’t get it.” You’d be surprised at how low the bar is set by many in and out of our circle. When he was three, a relative was feeding him food from the table and, when Lucas spit out a forkful of tuna that he thought would be chicken, the relative announced to the table:

Look! He spit it out! He knows the difference between tuna and chicken! He understands things!

Sweet sentiment, but yeah. Ugh. As his dad, it was one of those moments where I wish I could have turned to my son and said, “Check this dude out. He thinks your tastebuds are broken.” It makes you shudder to wonder how he’s seen by some people.

That misunderstanding regarding my son’s misunderstanding is often misunderstood most in social situations. Lucas will do something naughty and the belief is that he just doesn’t comprehend the world around him. People don’t make faces of anger, but rather pity. Although there are times when he may not understand, most times he does. As his dad, I have learned to spot the difference.

Whenever a situation arises that leaves him confused, Lucas will get a look on his face that shows me he isn’t being “bad”. Rather, he sports a flustered expression. Ask him to retrieve an item he doesn’t know the name of and he will slowly bend down, search around the floor, and timidly pick up the wrong thing. You can read it in his reactions. He’s a person and, because of that, the unspoken signs that he’s lost in the moment are very much like the signs a person with language would share.

How does this differ from naughty behavior? It’s far from subtle. See if you can spot the difference.

autism inclusion

Sitting at the table, Lucas will spy a bag of bread over in the kitchen. My boy is more into carbs than Mrs. Potato Head. The moment his eyes catch his prize, he will look up, usually from his iPad, and gesture towards it. If I don’t get up right away, he will take my hand and physically “throw” it in the direction of the bag.

No, Lucas. No bread. You just ate a cow.

Maybe not a cow, but something like that. He eats a lot. That’s the point.

This will usually elicit a small, below-the-breath whine. Maybe he’ll do another hand throw. Either way, he has now zeroed in on a goal.

Carefully, my boy will stand up from his seat and slowly start to back away from the table. It isn’t until he is a few feet away that he makes eye contact with me. It’s caution mixed with confrontation.

Where are you going?

Small steps start to turn into bigger steps. Still, his gaze remains unbroken as he inches toward the bag of bread. I call to him as he gets further away.

Stop. Come back here. No bread. You just ate that elephant.

Or whatever it is. You get what I’m saying.

At this point, my son, who I was once told by a physical therapist would struggle with movement throughout his life, begins to moonwalk, Michael Jackson style, across the wood floor, and into the kitchen. All the while, he’s still staring into my soul with a look that says, “Whatcha gonna do, brother?” He settles in front of the bag on the counter, burning a hole through me with his eyes.

Stop. I’m not kidding. Come back here.

Pause. Still staring.

Seriously. Stop.

And like that, he frantically goes to town on the bag. Unfamiliar with the mechanism behind “ziplock”, he’ll tear into the plastic sack until he rips it open. I stand up on one leg, still trying to refrain from running over. After all, I have to teach him rather than scold him, right? He needs to be a big boy and learn how to avoid tempta…oh come on!

Before I can finish my thought, he has shoved a piece in his mouth and, like a taxidermy chipmunk, his cheeks are three times their normal size.

Stop! No more. Lucas!

That’s when I get up and start to come over to him and, like a cartoon character, he begins shoveling massive amounts of bread into his face. It’s like Garfield scarfing down lasagna as the motion of his hands resembles a motorboat rudder.

As I make my way toward him, he does the part that I’ve learned not to laugh at. He bends at the knees, makes himself smaller, and freezes in place. I have long suspected that he thinks it makes him invisible. It doesn’t. He’s a giant little boy stuffed with bread, not to mention a cow, elephant, and three bags of Pirate Booty.

Did you spot the difference between confusion and naughty? It’s not exactly tough to see. He knows he’s not supposed to have it. Yet, he’s getting it. Eye contact and all.

The moral of the story is that my kid is, again, very much like yours. Whether your child has autism, special needs, or a degree from the best preschool in the land, some things about children are universal. Lucas can be naughty and disobey with the best of them. He did it this morning. He’ll do it tomorrow.

Verbal or non, kids are kids. They might not understand everything, but they understand getting what they want. You don’t need words to be a little bread thief.