Our son Malcolm has what is generally referred to as "high-functioning autism," meaning he is verbal, can follow instructions and can consume information at a staggering rate with meticulous accuracy. It also means he has very little ability to grasp social cues or to participate ably in many social situations. He is rarely willfully disobedient and hates getting into trouble.
Except for swearing, where he swore constantly at school, to teachers and classmates.
We tried teaching Malcolm "green-light words" and "red-light words," in the hopes that he would not cuss. But we were fighting a losing battle: To an autistic preteen, it is confusing to hear "those words are wrong" when the words appear to be socially acceptable in many contexts, including the playground and the middle-school bus ride, where the rules of discourse are set by peers, not by adults. And those contexts are precisely where Malcolm struggles the most -- but also desires the most to fit in. Of all the ways to fit in, this one was pretty harmless.
So, after growing weary of constantly monitoring his language, we devised a new plan. Instead of teaching Malcolm to stop swearing, we would teach him how to do it correctly and appropriately, so he could avoid confrontations with authority figures and get along with other kids. Not only did we have to teach him when and where profanity was acceptable (because he can't distinguish between the social contexts of the playground and the classroom the way a non-autistic adolescent would), we had to teach him the meanings of the words, so he could use them properly.
We walked Malcolm through the definitions of various swear words and the phrases in which they usually occur. We struggled to teach him the many variations of the f-word and is often just used as a placeholder for more socially acceptable adverbs and adjectives.
With the words themselves established, we had to teach Malcolm how to swear -- in what situations and contexts. Malcolm began his foray into socially acceptable cussing with our pets. He hates animals, and he especially hates our dogs, because they are unpredictable and don't respect his personal space. So he began telling them off with a variety of swear words we taught him.
There's been progress at school.
Our fingers are still crossed, but we haven't received any calls about Malcolm's cussing or off-color jokes in a long time. We really knew we were gaining ground with the training this spring. Malcolm hates violating rules, including not turning his library books in on time. But he also runs his life on a very strict schedule, down to the minute. These principles collided one morning in April, when Malcolm had to rush to the bus stop to avoid being late but forgot his library books, due that day. He knew he had one shot to correct his dilemma, asking the bus driver, "Can I go back home and get my library books?"
When the driver said no, and that she needed to go, Malcolm turned, walked down the aisle and screamed as loud as he could, "THAT'S BULLSHIT!!"
Yes, Malcolm. Yes it is.
Amy Bowden is an aerospace engineer in Savannah, Georgia. Geoff Bowden is a political theorist at Savannah State University.