An Autism “Awareness” Moment

The Original “No! Guy”

Several years ago, actor, David Spade, starred as the “No! Guy” in a series of commercials for Capital One Bank. In the ad campaign, Capital One was depicted as the bank that listened to their customers and was aware of and responsive to their unique needs. Capital One provided a hassle-free banking experience where as the motto goes: the customer was always right.

Mr. Spade’s “No! Guy” character, conversely, represented Capital One’s unresponsive rivals. They didn’t listen to their customers needs. They were unaware of their customers’ concerns, and they gave their customers the run-around—barking “No!” before clients had a chance to be heard. Mr. Spade’s edginess as the “No! Guy” was memorable and funny: a good ad campaign.

I remember this Capital One ad campaign for another reason. At the time the “No! Guy” ads began to air my son was nearly three years old and rivaled the “No! Guy’s” use of “No!”  Just as a request departed my lips—even a request to do something I knew he liked—my son would bark “No!”

“Should we play with Play-doh or bubbles now?”

“No!”

“Chicken or hot dog for dinner?”

“No!”

“Say ‘Hi!’ to Grandma.”

“No!”

“Ooh, that looks like a fun park. Let’s stop there and play!”

“No!”

“Oops, I forgot we have to go to the mailbox instead of the dry cleaner first.”

“No!”

“Let’s keep walking straight here today instead of turning.”

“No!”

“We just ran the ramps you love at the mall for a half an hour; I have to go into this store for one minute to return something.”

“No!”

My husband and I quickly adopted “David Spade” as a nickname for our young son.

“No!” isn’t an unusual response from a toddler but our son’s “No!” was often followed by collapsing on the floor or arching his back out of a “calming” hug, and screaming as though his fingers had been shut in a car door. The “No!” led to a hard-to-recover-from meltdown.

My own thoughts mirrored the thoughts I imagined were forming in thought bubbles over people’s heads as they observed us mid-meltdown:

That kid
a) is a brat
b) is spoiled
c) doesn’t listen
d) has to learn that he can’t always have things his way
e) all of the above

That parent
a) spoils her child
b) is clueless
c) makes excuses for her child
d) needs some parenting classes
e) all of the above

I assumed that those witnessing us during the meltdowns—strangers and acquaintances alike—selected “all of the above” for us. My son’s propensity to “pop” from sensory overstimulation couldn’t explain every meltdown. I was so confused by the cause and scared at the intensity of the meltdowns that I waivered in my confidence as a parent and secretly selected “all of the above” for us, too.

But something kept gnawing at me:  I knew our son was lovely and loving, happy and healthy. And I knew that as a parent I was attentive and loving, patient and stern. Yet, these frequent, unpredictable meltdowns betrayed the funny and beautiful child we knew our son to be and shook my emotional foundation as a parent.

A diagnosis shortly after our son turned three brought services but few helpful answers.   “Antecedents” entered our lexicon. And, surprisingly, we now heard “No!” not only from our “David Spade” but also from those crowding the new world that we had stepped into. It was as if our little “No! Guy” had foreshadowed the world awaiting us once he received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

No “cure.” No one cause. No one treatment. No one philosophy. No one voice.

No consensus among parents. No consensus among doctors. No consensus among educators. No consensus among therapists. No consensus among advocacy groups. No inclusion until he can do “X.” No hope after age five—the “window” was closing (we were warned!) No viable, independent future.

Just at the time when we fragile, confused parents needed to hear a reassuring “Yes!”, “No!” echoed all around us.

As we entered the public school district, things were no different. They told us “No!” when we asked that our son be educated side-by-side with his general education peers in the public preschool. Understanding our son’s right to be appropriately supported in the general education classroom before being segregated, we toured a private preschool known for its inclusive philosophy and high quality support of all learners. We wanted to see if our son would be a good fit. Upon entering the school building, our son found a hallway and began to run, as he usually did wherever a hallway was available.

On the return trip from one of his sprints, the school psychologist, who was giving us a tour, said “Hi!” to my son as he slowed down for a drink of water. “No!” he shouted at her as he came to a stop at the water fountain. I sheepishly explained, “We call him “David Spade” sometimes…you know, the Capital One commercial with the “No! Guy?” Unfazed, the school psychologist knelt down to my son’s eye level as he took a long drink from the fountain. She commented softly, with a gentle smile on her face, “Oh, you’re thirsty! (pause) That water tastes good.”   Our son looked up at the psychologist and gave her a huge smile—just a smile. There was no, “No!”

My husband and I looked at each other, amazed. She got a smile instead of another “No!” and a meltdown! But how?

As our son continued running his sprints, the psychologist, as if reading our minds, offered a possible reason—beyond an “antecedent”—as to our son’s proclivity for “No!”  “Maybe,” she wondered aloud, “No” is his way of saying, “Wait a minute!”

She continued to explain, but now adopting our son’s “voice”:  “Wait a minute! You have upset my world. You have changed my routine! I expected to do ‘x’ and now you want me to do ‘y’ and though I may really like ‘y’ you’ve changed my schedule. Now, I have to tell you ‘No!’ because my speech is delayed and I have very few words. But I am so smart that I’ve figured out that ‘No!’ gets my basic point across to you. So, please…wait a minute so I can figure out how to handle the change you want me to make to my schedule!”

Like an Oprah “aha” moment, this was my autism “awareness” moment. It was the “Yes!” that we had been looking for and we knew that we had to understand what the school psychologist understood.

Similar to Capital One, the responsive bank in the “No! Guy” ad campaign, her approach reinforced the motto:  the customer (our son, in this case) is always right. To be clear, this didn’t mean that our son got his way; rather, it meant that it was us adults—his parents and educators—who needed to go beyond the autism “label” to understand him as a whole child with unique individual differences in order to respectfully reach him and teach him.

My journey to understand my son’s individual differences is ongoing. However, it began when my awareness was broadened that day at the inclusive preschool, which he did attend for two years. After proving his success there, I was able to collaborate with our public school district’s educators and administrators to forge what has been a rich, fully inclusive school experience for our son.

Suffice it to say, “David Spade” isn’t a suitable nickname for our son anymore. Gone are the meltdowns. You’ll now hear my son say “No!” when I have to call him away from the basketball hoop in the driveway to complete his homework. Now, he’d prefer the nickname “Carmelo Anthony.”


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