Most parents encourage and even push their children. We expect a good or best effort, politeness and a general conformity to social rules. Community and peer pressure aids parents in these encouragements. Sometimes the peer pressure works against our desires for our children, but most of the time peer pressure and social expectations push in a positive direction. Responding to peer pressure or "what everyone expects" is not a characteristic that comes naturally or easily to people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Consequently pushing and encouraging children with ASD - especially adolescents - takes a different set of tools.
In this episode, we see Max not understanding the social importance of a school dance, and certainly not having any real desire to be "the politician" and please his fellow officers or classmates. He is simply class president to pursue his very personal agenda of reinstating the vending machine. His personal agenda just happens to align with enough of the other students', and thus he finds himself in office. Max is not the typical school president elected via a popularity contest, nor is he interested in pursuing his political power beyond his one issue. He really doesn't care about the dance one way or the other, except that it may detract from his goal. In the end, it simply seems easier to just give in to the wish of the others.
I imagine Max is really surprised when his mother wants him to go to the dance. But Max is probably often surprised by what is important to his parents. So after a time of protest and negotiation, he makes a decision to go because he parents are important to him. He decides that "being more grown up" - something he has promised to do - means doing things that are important to others even if he doesn't understand their importance. He isn't going to the dance to make his mother happy, but because his going shows he is complying with a pledge he made to his father.
He is also quite practical, and asks what he should do if someone accepts his invitation to dance. This illustrates his understanding that it's best to be prepared to conform to social norms, even if they don't make sense.
In the end, making Max go to the dance seems like a good decision. Who knows, maybe he'll even enjoy it. Maybe there will be other social gains. Of course, there may be no positive, except that he accomplishes one more socially expected goal. That seems to be enough for his parents.
I know our son Frankie's first response to anything new that isn't part of his special interest is "no way." Nevertheless, when he has been pushed to go to camp, walk to the beach or go out to eat, we often see him enjoying himself in ways he is unable to foresee because of his ASD. Because we have pushed him, he often achieves goals we all thought were not possible.
Of course we have to be careful; sometimes pushing too much is a disaster. That is the art of parenting: knowing when to push and when not to push, or at least making the best guess possible. For me it comes down to a real discussion with myself about who is this really for... me or Frankie?
Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.