“First…then:” Parenting in Binary Code

We learned the “first…then” behavior strategy from our daughter’s birth-to-3 team.  At the time, the goal was simply trying to help our daughter get a sense of time and order.  “First you go to sleep for a nap.  Then, you can play more.”  We used social stories, which are essentially a tool to convey any routine, such a potty steps, the line-up of her preschool day, or what a Saturday, which is different every week, might look like.

social stories

Over time, “first…then” also became a way to get both our children to take part in some of the less desirable parts of a household.  “FIRST, we clean up from the puzzles, THEN we can bring out the books.”

First… then can also be a pretty subtle bribery tactic.  “First, we have our protein.  Then we can have dessert.”

What continues to amaze me about Autism and all the subtle ways it shows up in our lives is how explicit we need to be when teaching every variation a skill.  As an example, we need to teach a greeting in person, “Hello, it’s so great to see you.”  However, we can’t make assumptions.  Today, when talking to her uncle over phone she said, “Hello, it’s so great to see you!”  Since it wasn’t Facetime or Skype it didn’t exactly fit.  “Uncle, it’s so great to hear you!”  “It’s so great to talk to you.”  Without explicitly practicing every “if… then,” we can’t assume it.

Parenting my daughter, in many ways, is reminiscent of my computer programming classes in high school.  For those of you for whom that doesn’t ring a bell: behind the scenes, computers only do exactly what you tell them to.  If you don’t plan for the variation, the computer system can’t process it.  While my daughter is infinitely more complicated, playful and fun than any computer, her “programming code” follows a similar vein.

We all know how humbling parenting is.  What is great is when humbling meets hysterical:

“No, I am not a honey, I am a girl!”

“Get on these books?  No, I will not get on them.  I will pick them up.”

“No, I don’t want to ‘get cleaned up’, I want to take a bath!”

“No, I don’t want to make my bed.  I want to fix it.”

“No, it’s not purple.  It’s indigo!”

“No, it’s not 8 O’clock, it’s 7:57!”  (Oh, wait, that one belongs to my son.)

I am a social worker by profession, not a computer programmer.  In my social worker world, I spend a lot of time teaching folks that there aren’t a heck a lot of “exactlys” in the field.  There are few.  What there is a lot of is getting comfortable flying by the seat of your pants.  In my daughter’s world of Autism, exactly is the way, the truth and the light.  Once again, I find myself out of my comfort zone, flying by the seat of my pants in the uncomfortable world of “exactlys.”

Oh well, the view is great, the ride is a thrilling nail-biter and the company is joyous.

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