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Flirting. With Disaster.

This is a post about my buddy Charlie, one of my clients with autism. I have so many stories about Charlie – he taught me so much over the three years I worked with him. This is the one where Charlie developed a crush on a girl, and it was a disaster.

Charlie was in mainstream classes in junior high. Do you you remember your middle school relationships with the opposite sex? Were they awkward, overdramatic, and embarrassing? Mine were. For Charlie, a tween with autism, the complex world of female relationships was so confusing.

I was asked to consult with Charlie’s school team. It turned out Charlie’s best attempt at flirting with the girl he liked involved constant staring and winking to the point where she was quite uncomfortable and did not want to be near Charlie. The girl’s parents were concerned as she had been in tears several nights.

So the staff met with Charlie several times and told him he needed to stop because the girl was really upset. The staff implemented a reward system first (he earned money if he did not stare at her during class), and then a consequence system (he had more homework when he stared at her). Both failed.

So I brainstormed with the staff and said that maybe instead of focusing on Charlie stopping the behavior, we should instead teach him a better way to flirt.

I don’t have the original visuals anymore, but they looked ver similar to this.

At home, when I saw Charlie, we would go over these visuals. And then I would modify them based on his understanding and objections. Finally we arrived at a common understanding of what was acceptable flirting in school. Then I passed the visual supports off to his school team, along with some data sheets so that the team could monitor Charlie’s progress and share it with him.

Almost immediately things improved. Though it not perfect, after a month we got to a place where the girl was comfortable and Charlie was trying really hard. Everyone was so happy – the school team, Charlie’s parents, and the girl and her parents. I felt great too, like we had accomplished something really big. Charlie learned how to flirt! I was the man! Until a month later when I got a call from his school.

Charlie switched classes at the end of the semester. And in his new science class, there was a girl he developed a crush on. And guess what he did? Stared. And winked. And made her more uncomfortable as the last girl. I was frustrated, but not surprised. This is a very humbling job. Big breakthroughs are often followed by setbacks. If you can keep going, success is on the other side of those setbacks.

I met with Chris and asked him what was going on. Why are you staring and winking at this girl? “I think she’s cute and I kinda like her,” was his answer. I asked if he remembered the situation with the girl from history class, and the month long intervention. And he said, “Oh. You mean I have to follow those same rules with girls in science class?” We began the process again, and for the next few years Charlie had (mostly) successful relationships with girls.

The lack of generalization in autism can be challenging at times. It is going to take longer to learn skills than you think. For me, I try to think of each situation as an opportunity for practice because some day they are going to need to use these skills in a big way. Like when Charlie asks a girl on his first date. I hope he gives her a 3 second look and a smile that she can’t say no to.

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