When our son Malcolm was in the second grade, his teacher informed us that he had said a bad word — the bad word. Malcolm had been organizing pieces of a game by size and color, in a precise and evenly spaced triple matrix, when a classmate took some pieces in an attempt to actually play the game. “F—!!” loudly and sharply reverberated across the room. Asked whether he knew what the word meant, Malcolm gave a tearful “No.”
Our son has what is generally referred to as “high-functioning autism,” meaning he is verbal, can follow instructions and can consume information at a staggering rate with meticulous accuracy. It also means that he has very little ability to grasp social cues or to participate ably in many social situations. He is rarely willfully disobedient and hates getting into trouble, but he often finds his way there.
When he was younger, the periodic calls from school seemed more serious: “Malcolm hit one of the teachers” or “Malcolm called one of the developmentally delayed students ‘fat and stupid’ when she tried to talk to him.” Those obstacles were fairly easy to overcome: We taught Malcolm that hitting and name-calling were not ever allowed, and we emphasized the point by threatening his use of the computer or video games.
Swearing was harder. We tried teaching Malcolm “green-light words” and “red-light words,” in the hopes that he would not cuss. But we were fighting a losing battle: To an autistic preteen, it is confusing to hear “those words are wrong” when the words appear to be socially acceptable in many contexts, including the playground and the middle-school bus ride, where the rules of discourse are set by peers, not by adults. And those contexts are precisely where Malcolm struggles the most — but also desires the most to fit in. Of all the ways to fit in, this one was pretty harmless.
So, after growing weary of constantly monitoring his language, we devised a new plan. Instead of teaching Malcolm to stop swearing, we would teach him how to do it correctly and appropriately, so he could avoid confrontations with authority figures and get along with other kids. Not only did we have to teach him when and where profanity was acceptable (because he can’t distinguish between the social contexts of the playground and the classroom the way a non-autistic adolescent would), we had to teach him the meanings of the words, so he could use them properly.
We walked Malcolm through the definitions of various swear words and the phrases in which they usually occur. “S—” is poop and means something is worthless or hiding something that is wrong or worthless. “F—” is sex and indicates doing something harmful to oneself (“F— me”) or someone else (“F— you”). Things got complicated here, because we didn’t want to teach him that sex is inherently bad (that’s another essay). We also struggled to teach him that “f—” has many variations and is often just used as a placeholder for more socially acceptable adverbs and adjectives. “Damn it” is a curse and is a way to express displeasure with someone or something. “A——” refers to your anus (he knew that) and is a name for people who are unpleasant to be around.
With the words themselves established, we had to teach Malcolm how to swear — in what situations and contexts. In the past, we were a family in which swearing was generally not acceptable, except for adults. Mom was the only one to cut loose, and, even then, only to a moderate degree. To teach Malcolm, we had to step it up. His cussing boot camp was in our family van. Driving through the city, a car squeezed in front of us without signaling. “See Malcolm, that guy’s an a——.” Pointing to a giant billboard that said “Rep. Kingland is here to serve you!”: “That’s bulls—, Malcolm. Do you understand why?” “Because he doesn’t want to serve us?” “Exactly.” And when we realized that we left our shopping list at home, “F—!!” “Do you understand why Mommy said that, Malcom?” “She’s mad?” Basically.
Malcolm began his foray into socially acceptable cussing with our pets. He hates animals, and he especially hates our dogs, because they are unpredictable and don’t respect his personal space. One of the miniature poodles first felt his ire: “Get away from me, you a——!” And, more recently, when our large boxer was barking at him outside (which really scares Malcolm): “F— you, Gus!”
There has been progress at school, too. Our fingers are still crossed, but we haven’t received any calls about Malcolm’s cussing or off-color jokes in a long time. We really knew we were gaining ground with the training this spring. Malcolm hates violating rules, including not turning his library books in on time. But he also runs his life on a very strict schedule, down to the minute. These principles collided one morning in April, when Malcolm had to rush to the bus stop to avoid being late but forgot his library books, due that day. He knew he had one shot to fix his predicament, asking the bus driver, “Can I go back home and get my library books?” When the driver said no and that she needed to go, Malcolm turned, walked down the aisle and screamed as loud as he could, “THAT’S BULLS—!!”
Yes, Malcolm. Yes, it is.