Monday, July 16, 2012

Autism, Social Cognition & Embarrassment: It’s Not a Bad Thing…

Autism, Social Cognition & Embarrassment: It’s Not a Bad Thing…

A couple of weeks back, the theme for a wonderful facebook group called Special Saturday was Embarrassing Moments. This has been rattling around in my head for a while now as I have been considering a couple of different ways that I could approach this as a topic.
One approach would be to consider ways that my son with autism has embarrassed me… but I don’t really think that this has a lot of relevance in terms of building understanding for those who process the world differently. That is a critical point, because working to create greater understanding is the intent behind this whole 30 Days (& then some) Project.
When I mentioned this topic to Craig the Amazing, he reminded me that when H was very young (before we understood that he was autistic and had speech and language challenges and sensory issues, etc) and we were struggling with almost every aspect of parenting our child, there were times we felt intensely judged about his behaviour. I remember the looks and comments from others, and the way it added to my already-shaky-parenting-confidence.
Since I did not yet know what was going on with my boy – I assumed that I was failing as a parent. I could explain this in great depth of course – and describe the progression of change as this uncomfortable and painful feeling evolved into a feeling of understanding and skills of advocacy for us as H’s parents. This was the gap where embarrassment lived: essentially the space between the reality of our situation and what I wished I saw in my parenting and the outcome of my actions for my child.  Now that I am well versed in strategies and understanding (at least most of the time) of H’s way of processing his experiences and perceptions, I generally have no reason to feel embarrassed by my child and his atypical behaviour or my skill in responding to it.
Another aspect to consider, from a parent’s perspective, is that the definition of embarrassment usually implies shame – and in turn – shame implies an emotion caused by some sort of shortcoming or disappointment. At this point – when H is almost 13 years old, I can tell you that I have met few people that I am more proud to know.
Embarrassment or shame may be an uncomfortable feeling, nevertheless, there are some positive aspects to embarrassment that bear consideration in terms of the inherent value and function of this emotion.  There are times now when I see my son uncomfortable with his own internal feelings of embarrassment. Frankly, I am glad to see the occasional flash of this in the emotions in my child. That H is experiencing embarrassment is a huge indication of the development that is happening for his social thinking skills. These painful or uncomfortable feelings of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of an error, or a poor choice in behaviour, are an indication of his growing social and ethical understanding. Of course he wants to avoid discussing these feelings – and that is understandable… but we discuss it anyway. I tell him:
“You are feeling embarrassed and I am glad you have that feeling. It is an important feeling and we all have it at times. When we have that feeling we need to pay attention because it is like a huge flashing light that can guide us and tell us if what we are doing is right or wrong. I am proud of you that you know that… you might decide you want to handle things differently next time. This feeling of embarrassment is a good thing if you notice it and use it as a social thinking tool. “
I suppose this is the case for all of us, really… I wonder what our world would be like if when we felt uncomfortable with our own actions, or reactions… we paid attention to that uncomfortable feeling and looked inward and examined our own behaviour? What if we took the feeling of embarrassment as an indication that we needed to check our recent steps and consider them in the light of others’ experience? What if we looked into ourselves, rather than looking for someone or something else to blame? What if we were OK with the discomfort of our mistakes or miss-steps and saw these as a chance to learn and grow?
I keep noticing that the lessons of life I am working so hard to give my child with autism, are the same lessons that every one of us, including myself, seem to need. Hmmm…

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