Oh dear. Max is in trouble, and now he has to have lunch by himself for a week and is required to do something that he has no patience for, thinks is unfair and doesn't understand. An apology for an event for which he doesn't feel responsible? And the apology has to be sincere? What the heck does that mean??
As an autism consultant to schools, I have been involved with this exact situation many times and have often had to explain an unpleasant situation to someone with a one-perspective approach. Although it was embarrassing for her to ask Amber to visit Max at school and to help him formulate the apology, Kristina did the right thing. Having lunch by himself as a punishment was an optimal time for Amber to teach Max how to identify various facial expressions via demonstrating each one. Because it seems so obvious to us, it's funny to see Max's misunderstanding of the differences between a sincere apology and one delivered in a monotone and flat affect. But this goes to the heart of the problem: discerning the differences between emotions is very hard for those with ASD.
Years ago, I conducted a peer nomination study with several kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in the Metro-Atlanta area. Students in each classroom (including students with ASD) were asked to sort pictures of their classmates' faces into separate baskets - those they liked, those they didn't and those they considered to be their "best friends." At the beginning of the year, many students couldn't identify the children in the pictures. (The first sorting was conducted only two weeks after school started.) This was not surprising, since the students were still so new to one another. When asked to do the same sorting exercise with the same pictures months later however, all of the students could identify whom they liked or disliked - with the exception of the students with ASD!
This was amazing to us. But after consideration, it shouldn't have been a surprise: individuals with ASD do not glean information from facial expressions of others as typical individuals do. They do not always look people in the eye, do not understand a lifted eyebrow, smirk, sad face, disappointed face and all the other messages sent by someone else's facial expression. In addition, when you combine all of these expressions with the thousands of possible gestures and vocal inflections - which add their own meanings into the mix - you can understand why this is an incredibly difficult skill to master when one does not have the neurological basis for doing so.
What was the difficulty students with ASD had with the pictures we used in the peer nominations? It was because these pictures were only headshots of each child. They did not show where the students sat in the room, where they hung their book bags, which cubbies they had or where they stood in line on the way to lunch. Those with ASD would have been able to identify the students if we had included those features in the pictures. But when confronted with just headshots of each student's face, then no, they couldn't tell us who was pictured, nor sort them to reflect which children they actually chose to play with during their daily playground time.
Amber now has a better understanding of how Max thinks and the subtleties of emotions that he misses. She is very proud that she has been able to help him better understand this important skill through role modeling, demonstration, acting out, writing out a script and practice, practice, practice. Having had this practice, Max is able to go through with his apology to Jabbar and the tiff between them is over. Will Max remember this for the future? Yes, on this particular skill in this particular situation. Will he generalize it? That is less certain. Those with ASD have difficulty generalizing skills from one setting to the next. His school really needs to address his lack of understanding of social relationships and interactions and conduct weekly social skills instruction. Max is young; he can learn a lot in this area. But he will need the same level of rehearsal and practice as Amber just gave him for any number of social skills. Hopefully, his teachers and school system will understand this concept and act soon.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.