All's Fair

By Ellen Notbohm

“You ain’t fair.”

It’s a memorable moment in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout throws this accusation at her uncle. He’s just walloped her for flinging forbidden foul language at a peer. “You never stopped to gimme a chance to tell you my side of it,” she berates him.

We can all agree that Scout’s perception of her uncle’s unfairness is a far cry from your children whining about who got two extra french fries or three minutes more at the computer. But explaining the amorphous, intangible concept of “fair” to our black-and-white, all-or-nothing, concrete-thinking children with ASD can be equally frustrating for both you and your child.

The challenge becomes infinitely more difficult when we as parents and teachers hold the notion that “fair” is synonymous with “equal.” With the best of intentions, parents turn themselves inside out trying to ensure that their children are treated equally. They all go to summer camp, join the soccer team, get a bike for their birthday – at the appointed age and time, not always with a lot of thought as to whether it’s the right time and place (or interest) for the individual child.
Having a child with ASD upsets this apple cart big time. Because my two children were so different, I was able to put an early kibosh on the idea that how we treated them or what we provided for them would or should be exactly equal. Guiding us in this were some of our early practitioners, one of whom offered the following unconventional-for-the-time definition: Fair is not when everything is equal. Fair is when everyone gets what they need.

Within the cocoon of your own family, this definition may be right and workable; it was for ours. But beyond your front door lies those larger spheres where the concept of “fair” becomes more global: the classroom, the school, the city, state, country and planet. What is fair for the many must supersede what is fair for the individual. And, though it is heartbreaking to have to teach this to a child, sometimes things happen that simply are not fair, and sometimes things that are not fair cannot be put right. Helping your child learn to deal with these piercing but very real instances in life is essential to his growth as a resilient, independent, confident individual.

To build a concept of “fair” for our children who struggle to understand perspectives other than their own, we must carefully instill within them an understanding of their place as a member of a group, and that rules are made for the protection of people in a particular group. In his life, he is a member of a family, a member of a classroom, perhaps a member of a sports team, choir or other group. He is also a citizen of his town or city, his state and his country. With citizenship in each of these groups comes rights, responsibilities and rules. We have a right to be safe and we have the responsibility to create a safe community. Rules are made for each of these groups, to keep its members safe and healthy. Offer your child age-appropriate examples.

You’ll also need to discuss with your child that at times these rules may seem unfair to an individual, and that formal and informal ways of communicating these grievances helps us air our feelings and settle differences. Scout was right to call down her uncle for not giving her a chance to tell her side. Hearing both sides of a story is integral to the concept of “fair.”

A child can begin to deal with feelings of unfairness when he feels his concerns have been heard. Provide your child with a way to communicate and/or record the accusation in a concrete fashion. You might even make up a form that either you or the child fills out.

Who is the grievance against (classmate, sibling, teacher, parent, etc)?
What happened ( _______ said this and/or ___________
did this)?

When did this happen?
Where did this happen?
What rule did this break?
How did this make you feel?
What do you think should happen next?

Let your child know that airing his concerns is important both to him and to others. It lets adults in charge understand there is a problem and how he feels about it. The adults in charge will then make a decision. Sometimes there will be consequences, such as a penalty, a payment, an apology or even a changing of the rules. Sometimes your child will agree with the decision, and sometimes he won’t.

When the decision seems unfair, your child may feel angry or depressed. Assure him that these feelings are OK (you will not tell him “snap out of it” or “suck it up”). Encourage him to express these feelings appropriately to teachers, parents or other adults who care and can help. You might offer a menu of ways in which he can vent or learn to self-manage his anger: practice deep breathing, count to ten, articulate his feelings (“I’m mad about this!” or “I want to be alone”), draw a picture about it, listen to music on headphones, chomp some gum or eat something crunchy, go for a run, scream into or punch a pillow, hug a teddy bear, grab a squeeze toy.

Be patient. Abstract concepts like “fair” are enormously difficult for your child, and frankly, many so-called typical adults struggle with feelings of unfairness and managing the frustration and anger it generates. This learning will come incrementally as your child’s social awareness develops. Years ago, a family member of ours was appalled that I would let Bryce, when angry, go to his room and slam the door in a manner that shook the house to its foundation. I was happy to point out that the door-slamming was a major improvement over cat-scratching and hurling toys. And the door-slamming was short-lived.
The fact is, kids don’t like feeling out of control. Giving them respectful and acceptable ways to express negative feelings empowers them.

All the patient teaching in the world won’t negate the reality that life often has no regard for fairness. The reward comes when we see that we have given our children the tools to rise to the challenge of handling those situations. For an 8th grade reading assignment on banned books, Bryce chose to tackle To Kill a Mockingbird, a book of monumental complexity for a concrete-thinking child. Both his teachers and his parents assured him that he could choose a more straightforward book, but he would not be deterred. He had heard me speak about this book over the years as a story of great importance, and he insisted he could handle it. He did. Bryce’s observation was telling: “you ain’t fair” didn’t begin to describe a white jury convicting a black man of rape despite irrefutable evidence that he was innocent.

In other words, he got it.

One of the most humbling – and worthwhile – aspects of raising children with autism is that in teaching them, we are forced to enhance ourselves as well. “It is not fair,” Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” Teaching my children to handle “fair” and “unfair” gave me a much more serene approach to picking and choosing battles I could actually win, accepting outcomes of those I could not (at least, not yet) and, in the words of that old anonymous prayer, having “the wisdom to know the difference.”

Thanks to Veda Nomura, MS, OTR/L and the Portland Public Schools’ Collaborative Supports Team for lending their expertise to this column.
© 2008 Ellen Notbohm
Three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. She is a columnist for Autism Asperger’s Digest and Children’s Voice and a regular contributor to Healing. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and websites around the world. For book excerpts or to explore Ellen’s work, please visit