By Kathy Porter
A version of this article was originally published on Medium.
He arrives at the animal shelter where he works 15 minutes before the early morning shift starts. Punching his time card, he walks down the hallway toward the dog kennels.
“Where have you been?” she gets up in his face and yells. “You were supposed to be here an hour ago!”
She is a 62 year old co-worker.
He is my 27 year old, autistic (ASD) son.
When he quietly explains that no one told him to report at 7AM; that his scheduled start time on Saturdays is 8AM, she stomps off. Only to repeat her performance the following Saturday.
Off-the-cuff conversation is challenging for my son. When someone verbally bullies him, he doesn’t know what to spontaneously reply to protect himself.
Unless he’s coached.
The key is to use non-threatening language that addresses what’s been said without verbally attacking the speaker; to find a “one size fits all” reply that takes care of every single, rude comment that might (thoughtlessly or deliberately) come up in the work place.
Are you ready?
Here it comes.
“Your language is unprofessional and I don’t appreciate being talked to that way.”
I pulled the phrase “professional language,” out of the six years my son attended Hope Hall, a private school for children who might otherwise fall through the cracks; a school for kids like mine diagnosed with learning disabilities cobbled to auditory processing delays, to list just a few of the buzz words in vogue more than 20 years ago.
The school’s founder and executive director was (and still is) an amazing woman named Sister Diana.
“Use your professional words,” she always said to her students. This was her loving battle cry against hurtful words that kids say without thinking.
She also said, “Don’t let other people take away your power.” She meant, don’t let other people take away your self-worth.
Self-worth’s a tricky thing regardless of where you fall on the (human) developmental scale, especially if communication is problematic for you. Which it can be for my son.
Despite the fact that he struggles with the nuances of language: the interplay of layered, active conversations between two or four or more people that almost never follow a straight line, soaring, instead, like kites caught in an updraft of spring thermals, swooping down then back up . . .
Each dip and sway spins that initial conversation, morphs it into a thousand different meanings.
Or so (I believe) it must seem to him.
Imagine tossing a handful of pennies into the air, tracking their splattered fall to the ground. Which one does he follow so that when his turn comes to speak, his reply makes sense?
For my son, it doesn’t matter which penny he tracks. If he’s having a conversation with two or more people, unless he has someone to guide him, he’ll lose his way.
Despite the fact that he struggles with the nuances of language, he knows when he’s the butt of someone’s rudeness. What he doesn’t have is the verbal quickness to defuse it.
At that moment.
And so, he rehearsed after a brainstorming session where we put our heads together to come up with a phrase that was fool proof; that he could say back to anyone at work who insulted him; a phrase that he could take all the way to the HR department (with impunity) if one of his co-workers reported him.
Which almost happened when he (finally) screwed up his courage and used it for the third and last time one afternoon as he
and that 62 year old, part time employee worked together in the kitchen. As she opened her mouth to say something, my son verbally cut her off.
Looking her in the eye, he quietly, firmly told her that almost every time she spoke to him, she used unprofessional words and, he didn’t appreciate being talked to like that.
Then he watched her jaw drop.
I don’t know for sure (because I wasn’t there) but, I’ll bet he smiled as he walked away.
Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley