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Over the last year or so we had been taking our son Derek to karate lessons. They were one hour lessons one day a week. Because of Derek's autism he was assigned a personal trainer to work directly with him, but in the same room as the other kids. I'd usually spend the time across the street at the bookstore. When I went to pick Derek up i'd listen to the trainer as she told me how the day went. Now Derek loves karate, and loves to be there with the other kids, but he can't sit still and listen to instructions, and he can't follow instructions very well, this is a part of his autism, it's not a behavioral issue. Needless to say, trying to make him do something can be a bit frustrating, and as his parents we've given up trying to make him do things and have instead started looking for ways to make him want to do them. And that has been one of the best decisions we've ever made. We tried to explain this to Derek's trainer, and he nodded and said yes that makes sense i'll see what I can do, and we left it at that.

All was going OK for a time, and it was obvious that the trainer really liked Derek. But one day we started noticing some changes in his behavior. He was acting out more at home, getting upset and frustrated with himself more than ever before. He also started talking bad about himself, something he'd never really done before. We asked him what was wrong, but he wasn't able to tell us. We tried to think of any possible reason for his change in behavior. Then one day while I was talking to Derek's trainer he told me how Derek was disobeying and laughing about it. Now one of the tenets of karate is respectful obedience to your teacher, not Derek's strong point, and not something that he was ready to tackle yet. We told the trainer that he often shows the wrong emotion, such as laughing when he feels bad about something, and again, that you can't just tell him to do something and expect him to do it, you have to figure out how to make him want to do it on his own. It didn't seem like we'd reached an understanding and on the way home I asked Derek what'd happened in class that day. Derek never tells me, but I always make it a point to ask him anyway, that way he has the opportunity to respond when he's ready to. This time, to my surprise, he said, “[trainer's name] said that I was being a bad student and a bad friend.”

I had to pull over to the side of the road. For one, I was crying because Derek had communicated so clearly, and two, I could not believe what he'd just told me. I talked to my husband at home and we both thought that this is why Derek has been acting up lately.

We took a couple of weeks off from karate, and then when Derek was ready we went back. I had intended to talk to his trainer after class about what Derek had said, so this time I waited in the lobby instead of going across the street. Well, Derek and his trainer came out of class early and I could tell that he was frustrated. Derek ran to his dad and they went outside while me and the trainer talked. He said that Derek was being unruly and so he told him (again) that he was being a bad student and then Derek bit him. He then told me that I needed to talk to him about his behavior. I was really upset and had a hard time thinking clearly, nevertheless I went outside and told Derek that he needed to apologize to his trainer for biting him. Derek willingly went back inside and said he was sorry. I then told his trainer that we wouldn't be needing his help anymore and that either I or Derek's dad would assist him in class from now on. He said “No, you guys need a break and I can handle him.” I said thanks for the offer but we'll be taking over now.

The next week Derek's dad helped him in class, Derek did pretty good for a long time, and he was much more calm after class than we'd seen him in a long time. The week after that I helped him, and he did great the whole class. From then on he's been doing well in class and his behavior at home and other places has improved greatly. We could hardly believe it, one person for one hour a week, treating a disability as a behavior problem had caused our boy to act up for the rest of the week, and think bad things about himself. From that time on we resolved (as much as is in our power to do so) to make sure the people that spending time with him do not treat his disability as a behavior problem. Derek is not trying to hurt people, or make people mad, he simply cannot control his body. Some times he can but it takes all of his effort and it leaves him exhausted, and he needs people to understand this, and not punish him or make him feel bad for it.

So that's how powerful the human environment is. All it takes is one person one hour a week to make a difference. Don't punish kids for things that are beyond their control, and don't treat a disability like it's a problem. Derek, and other kids like him, want to make their parents and teachers proud just like any other kid, they just have a much harder time doing things the right way. And i'd recommend that if your child is having behavioral difficulties and you can't figure out why, start thinking about the people in his life, especially yourself and those who spend the most time with them. A little change in attitude can make a world of difference.