Category Archives: Education

The Impact of Bullying: Internalizing Disorders

Trigger warning:  bullying, anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts

Many autistic adults have written about the long horrors of their school days.  They remember (unfortunately, they sometimes can’t STOP remembering) being poked and prodded, scratched and kicked, punched, doused with noxious liquids, and pushed down stairs.  They remember being choked unconscious, set on fire, waterboarded, stabbed with knives.  They remember being the one not invited to the birthday party, not picked for the sports team, not wanted as partner for a class project.  They remember sitting alone on the bus, sitting alone at lunch, standing alone on the playground.  More than anything, they remember the mockery and humiliation, the insults and cruel imitations, the echoes of savage laughter.  And this is why there was such a visceral reaction when speech pathologist Karen Kabaki-Sisto published a piece called “10 Perks Kids with Autism Get From Bullying” on the Autism Daily News, in October, 2015.[1]  Kabaki-Sisto presumably meant well (something along the line of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”), but her piece was jarringly tone deaf to actual autistic experience.  Most autistic adults (and many neurotypicals, including myself) who read “10 Perks” were outraged that anyone would suggest that their traumatic experiences and those of their children had any “positive” side at all.

The Impact of Bullying Internalized

Bullying causes such severe distress in schoolchildren that it may cause or exacerbate psychological disorders, especially what psychologists call “internalizing” disorders (ones that are not easily seen by others because emotional distress is directed inwards).  These include loneliness, anxiety, poor self-image, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.  Prolonged bullying (the type most autistic kids endure) erodes trust in other people, leaving the victims feeling alone and helpless.  By-standers fail to help, friends drop away, school staff refuse to believe reports of bullying, or give useless advice.  Responding to Kabaki-Sisto, Jennifer reports that her bullying experiences left her with

A complete inability to trust others: This is due to never knowing who is actually your friend or who is setting you up to be the butt of a joke and/or using you for their own personal gain. You also realize your peers don’t give a damn about you enough to stand up for you, when they see you being harassed, made fun of, and physically abused by others.[2]

Kabaki-Sisto had suggested that bullying might lead to increased independence for autistic children, but Purpleaspie did not view that as a positive thing:

In a twisted way bullying did increase my independence, as it taught me that I couldn’t rely on anyone to help me, certainly not the school principal or vice-principal or any of the teachers or counsellors, so I had to depend only on myself.[3]

Lack of trust often leads to increased social withdrawal: “to avoid exposing yourself to betrayal in the first place, or because you lose the confidence and self-esteem you might have had before.”[4]  Kabaki-Sisto had suggested that being bullied might lead to new friendships, but this is not what autistic adults remember:

A bullied child will feel isolated from his or her peers, not drawn to new peers. When social interactions – already a situation that makes those with autism nervous – becomes associated with all of the negatives of bullying, a child with autism is more likely to withdraw within himself or herself and not try to make new friends.[5]

Social withdrawal, however, only worsens the situation, as it removes even the tiny amount of social support that might be have been there before, making bullying even easier.

Lack of trust can result in intense anxiety.[6]  When Kabaki-Sisto suggested that bullying might make autistic children more aware of the people around them, one autistic adult described the kind of awareness that might result:

. . . she will grow to be afraid of everyone around her. She will be constantly afraid the next person walking down the street will take umbrage with her behavior. She will be afraid of doing anything that isn’t “normal,” and will question her own behaviors and thoughts to the point of near nervous breakdown.[7]

School rapidly becomes a place of terror for children who are bullied.  School refusal is a common outcome:  Alex Forshaw is not alone in having bolted when being told it was time to go to school.[8]  Others, as we have already seen, may act up in school on purpose, to get suspended and thus avoid being there.  Even those who can bring themselves to go to school suffer from debilitating fear.  In ninth and tenth grade, my own autistic daughter used to vomit every single morning before going off to face the bullies.  By the second part of tenth grade, she could only go at all if she took along a tiny stuffed animal, hidden in her pocket, to “be her friend” at school, and her arms were raw from anxiety-induced scratching.[9]  IndieSoul used to “shake and sweat from anxiety in school and hide in the bathrooms during recess.”[10]  Another victim reports fainting “just out of fear.”[11]  Anxiety is already high in most autistic individuals, but years of bullying in childhood ups the ante, laying the foundations for anxiety disorders continuing into adulthood. IndieSoul continues: “I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be completely rid of the anxiety.”[12]

Social anxiety and panic disorders linked to bullying during childhood are very common among autistic adults, but particularly severe or long-lasting bullying may also result in post-traumatic stress disorder.[13]  To my knowledge, no researcher has examined how many autistic adults suffer from PTSD as a result of school bullying, but many individuals report having been professionally diagnosed with the disorder, and some describe their symptoms online.  Flashbacks, or moments when remembered trauma seems to be happening in the present, are common: “Lately I’ve been having flashbacks of the days when I got bullied in school. They range from the typical teasing, to having things thrown at me, gossiped about, falsely accused of vandalism, being called mentally challenged, ‘roasted’ by the entire classroom when I had done nothing wrong or didn’t say anything at all, and eventually ignore by adults when I complained and after that, beaten up.”[14]  PTSD produces many other symptoms beyond flashbacks.  Jellybean reports: “I suffer from panic attacks, palpitations, hallucinations, nightmares, physical sickness (rare) and have an overactive responce to potential dangers, even if the ‘danger’ doesn’t really exist. It is absolutely horrific to suffer like this.[15]  Individuals suffering from such debilitating symptoms find it difficult, if not impossible to achieve a decent quality of life.

The most dangerous lesson autistic (and other) children learn from bullying, however, is that they deserve it.  This is what the bullies tell them, this is what parents and school staff may inadvertently reinforce, this is what they eventually internalize—that they are somehow less than other people, unworthy of decent treatment, inherently flawed and deserving of punishment.  “The assistant principal at my old school told me it was my fault I was being bullied and that I should change what ever it was I was being bullied about.”[16]  “. . . when I was made fun of pushed around etc in school I always thought I deserved it because I ‘asked’ for it, not being normal etc.”[17]  By high school, Kirsten reports, “my self-esteem had been damaged to the point that I couldn’t even conceive of the notion of self-love. In the back of my mind, I thought I was slow, stupid, ugly, a loser, and any other unwanted adjective I could think of.”[18]

Children who have absorbed these lessons often develop clinical depression: “I got bullied at school and was depressed all of middle school/high school.”[19]  “I got a major clinical depression because of bullying.  I’m on meds now.”[20]  Depression itself is severely debilitating, hindering both social and academic achievement, but it also often leads to thoughts of suicide—one study has found that suicidal ideation is 28 times more common among autistic than among neurotypical children. The problem appears to be not autism itself, but the experience of being bullied:  the same study found that children with autism spectrum conditions who have been bullied are approximately three times more likely to think about or actually attempt suicide than children with autism who have not been bullied.[21]  A fourteen-year-old with autism who had already made two suicide attempts reported that the bullying “made me feel sad, depressed. It made me feel like people don’t care anymore because when I got bullied I felt like well if they cared about me they would have done something.”[22]  Bullies, and especially cyberbullies often encourage suicide with messages such as “you should just go kill yourself” and “everyone would be happier if you were dead,”[23] but some autistic children simply find their lives in school unbearable and look to death as a relief. “I would have killed myself if my parents didn’t take me out of public school.  The bullying was that bad.[24] Not only suicidal thoughts, but also suicide attempts and successful suicides are more common among autistic than neurotypical children.[25]If I had not been bullied at school I would have had a refuge.  Not having that?  I tried to kill myself a few times and failed.  I didn’t get found or helped, I just didn’t do it right.  I am glad of that but telling me that I am stronger because of this [as Kabaki-Sisto did] is an insult to my intelligence, common sense, and every autist on the planet.”[26]

Ultimately, after years of bullying, autistic children—like other bullied children—may simply lose their sense of self.  However happy, engaged, and enthusiastic they may have been as young children, their experiences at school have turned them into angry, fearful, depressed and bitter adults.  As the author of one response to “10 Perks” asks

Am I a better person for [the bullying]?  How would I know . . . the girl you are talking about died thirty years ago and again and again yet she never gets to rest.[27]

 

 

 

[1] It was later pulled from the Autism Daily News website because of the outcry against it.

[2] Jennifer, “A Response to the Ten Perks Children with Autism Get From Bullying,” on the Autistic Giraffe Party Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/autisticpartygiraffe/posts/429266380617441.

[3] “There Are No Perks to Being Bullied,” on the Purpleaspie blog:  https://purpleaspie.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/there-are-no-perks-to-being-bullied/.  See also Ian Nicholson, “Ten Things THIS Autistic Kid Learned from Being Bullied,” on the Digital Hyperlexic blog:  https://thedigitalhyperlexic.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/ten-things-this-autistic-kid-learned-from-being-bullied/.

[4] S.M. Neumeier, “Bullying is abuse, and abuse has no perks,” on the Silence Breaking Sound website: https://silencebreakingsound.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/bullying-is-abuse-and-abuse-has-no-perks/.

[5] TechyDad, “Perks From Being Bullied?  I Don’t Think So!” on the TechyDad blog:  http://www.techydad.com/2015/10/perks-from-being-bullied-i-dont-think-so/.

[6] On the high levels of anxiety among autistic children and adolescents overall, see J. Wood, and K. Gadow, “Exploring the Nature and Function of Anxiety in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 17 (2010), 281-292.

[7] J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 “Perks” for bullied autistic kids is bull.” Medium magazine, 10/16/15:   https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.

[8] Alex Forshaw, “Bullying:  Resurrecting Buried Trauma,” on the My Autistic Dance blog:  https://myautisticdance.blog/2015/10/18/bullying-resurrecting-buried-trauma/.

[9] We home-schooled her for her junior and senior years, because we just couldn’t watch her suffering anymore.

[10] IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder,” on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798.

[11] Iknewyouweretrouble, in the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=32&t=231102&start=15; see also franknfurter’s contribution to the “What Were You Like in Elementary School?” discussion:  “i also had panic attacks a lot, and was bullied, it was not a time i care to remember, only emotions about elementary/primary school i remember feeling was anxiety” (https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=226220).

[12] IndieSoul, in the “Aspergers and Social Anxiety Disorder,” on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=202798; see also Oten’s contribution to the “Were You Bullied in School?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=231102; NerdyKid’s contribution to the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; Feminist Aspie, “10 Downsides Kids With Autism Get From Bullying (because apparently it isn’t obvious),” on the Feminist Aspie blog:  https://feministaspie.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/10-downsides-kids-with-autism-get-from-bullying-because-apparently-it-isnt-obvious/.  See also NerdyKid’s contribution to the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.

[13] School bullying has been identified as one potential cause of PTSD in the general population:  T. Idsoe, A. Dyregrov, and E. Idsoe, “Bullying and PTSD Symptoms,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 40 (2012), 901-11; T. Gumpel, “Prolonged Stress, PTSD, and Depression Among School Aggressors and Victims,” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma 25 (2016), 180-96.  Little research has been done on school bullying and PTSD among autistic individuals; see only C. Kerns, C. Newschaffer, and S. Berkowitz (2015). “Traumatic Childhood Events and Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 45(2015), 3475-3486.  The authors include bullying as one of the potential sources of traumatic stress.

[14] Ameriblush, in the “Remembering years of bullying” discussion on the Aspies Central website:

https://www.autismforums.com/threads/remembering-years-of-bullying.22944/#post-456806.

[15] Jellybean, in the “Complex PTSD As Result of Severe Bullying” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=47533&start=45.

[16] This_Amoeba, in the “People Normalizing Bullying You Got As A Child” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=336587.

[17] Daedal, in the “People with Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.  See also J.T. Dabaggian, “Why Karen Kabaki-Sisto’s 10 “Perks” for bullied autistic kids is bull.” Medium magazine, 10/16/15: https://medium.com/@jtdabbagian/why-karen-kabaki-sisto-s-10-perks-for-bullied-autistic-kids-is-bull-7f14d97aabf4.

[18] Kirsten, “Bullying . . . The Real Problem . . . An Aspergian Woman’s Perspective”:  http://wrongplanet.net/bullying-the-real-problem-an-aspergian-womans-perspective/.

[19] IHaveAspergers,” in the “Is Suicide Common In People with Aspergers?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.

[20] hello07, in the “People with Apergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165.

[21] S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013.

[22] Cyberbullying Research Center, “Helping Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder When Bullied or Cyberbullied”:  https://cyberbullying.org/helping-kids-autism-spectrum-disorder-bullied-cyberbullied.

[23] Autistic students are often targeted with such messages: see the “Why Are People Telling Me to Kill Myself?” and “I Was Jus Bullied, Called a Retard & Told To Go Kill Myself” discussions on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=341134, and http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=299688.

[24] PunkyKat, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165 .

[25] O. Shtayermann, “Peer Victimization in Adolescents and Young Adults Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome:  A Link to Depressive Symptomatology, Anxiety Symptomatology, and Suicidal Ideation,” Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing 30 (2007), 87-197; Benjamin Zablotsky, Catherine Bradshaw, Connie Anderson, and Paul Law, “The Association between Bullying and the Psychological Functioning of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 34 (2013), 1-8; S. Mayes, A. Gorman, J. Hillwig-Garcia, and E. Syed, “Suicide Ideation and Attempts in Children with Autism,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7 (2013),109–119, 2013; Danielle Ung, et al., “The Relationship between Peer Victimization and the Psychological Characteristics of Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 32 (2016), 70-79.  See also the personal accounts of Hello07, in the “People With Aspergers Don’t Care About Being Bullied” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=149165; IHaveAspergers, in the “Is Suicide Common In People With Aspergers?” discussion on the same website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=280538.

[26] Kateryna Fury, “Why Bullying Isn’t Healthy for ANYONE,” on the Textual Fury blog: http://snip.ly/oLlW#https://textualfury.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/why-bullying-isnt-healthy-for-anyone-a-post-intended-for-karen-kabaki-sisto-trigger-warning-for-everyone-else-also-i-cussed-a-bit/.

[27] “On the ‘perks’ of bullying . . . ,” on the Antigenic Self blog: http://theantigenicself.tumblr.com/post/131203829795/on-the-perks-of-bullying.

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Bullying In Schools

Trigger warning:  descriptions of bullying

 

I feel like the public school system failed me.”[1]

 

If you are a school bully looking for an easy target, you will soon discover that the nearest kid with autism fits your needs perfectly. Being generally naïve about social customs and interactions, children with autism are easily manipulated or tricked into dangerous situations.  Because of their unusual behaviors (and sometimes by personal preference), they tend to be socially isolated, leaving them with no protective support network of peers.  Teachers and other authority figures may mistrust or even dislike them, and so often fail to back them up when they report being bullied (see below).[2]

Scholars who have researched this subject all agree that students with autism spectrum conditions are disproportionately affected by bullying.  Depending on their definitions of bullying, the samples of children they study, and their methodology, their estimates of how many autistic kids have experienced bullying within a single year range from a low of 57% to a high of 94%.[3]  Some have concluded that children with autism are four times more likely to be targeted than neurotypical kids, and that 40% of autistic kids are bullied daily, compared with only 15% of neurotypical kids. Children with autism are also more likely to be targeted than other children with special needs (except perhaps for those with ADHD—another “unpopular” group at school) or obese children (also common targets for bullies).[4]  Having been bullied, some children with autism then go on to become bullies themselves, but only at about the same rate as neurotypical kids who have been bullied.  However, if they have both autism and ADHD, the likelihood of their becoming bullies in response to bullying increases. [5] 

Most U.S. schools now have anti-bullying programs, but few of these programs are effective.  (One exception is a program, developed in Finland but now being adopted in the United States, that targets by-standers[6].)  Overall, autistic students who have been bullied report receiving little support from their schools.  It is possible that busy teachers genuinely don’t see the cruelty perpetrated in their classrooms.  However, victims—to whom the situation is painfully obvious—often find it hard to imagine that their teachers don’t see what’s happening, so they conclude that the teachers simply don’t care: “They did absolutely nothing. Ignoring it was their best policy.”[7]  This perceived (and sometimes real) indifference adds an additional layer to the trauma the victims of bullying are already suffering.

Even when bullying is formally reported to the school authorities, the victim’s testimony may not be believed.  (My own family had to deal with this problem several times.)  If there are two different accounts of what happened, the school will often refuse to take a side: “I swear on my grave I never lied about anything. But when it came to authority, I’d report a kid, the principal or vice principal would do nothing. They would tell me how they talked to the other kid and listened to my story and didn’t know who was lying.[8][9] “[The teachers’] favorite mantra was always ‘it’s their word against yours.’”[10]  However, since those who bully generally have a stronger support network than their autistic victims, they may actually find it easier to get their accounts corroborated.  This is especially the case with the “popular” kids, whom adults may perceive as “good people,” who “would never engage in bullying.”  And so, in far too many cases, the school actually accepts what the bullies have to say: “when I told a co-ordinator that 2 girls in my class were bullying me, her ‘solution’ was to call the girls up to her office and ask them in front of me if they were bullying me. Of course they told lies and the situation got worse after that . . .[11]  “ . . . .  when I reported it to the teachers, ‘sorry we have to go with majority on this’.[12] In cases like these, the situation either fails to improve or more commonly gets worse.  Sometimes the person who has been bullied gets punished (most often for retaliating, but sometimes even for reporting) and the bully gets off scot free.[13]  In Arkansas, for example, a student who reported being bullied to his teacher was called a “tattle-tale,” and forced to sit in the “time-out” chair.[14]  At this point, a victim will simply stops looking to the school for support: “I got tired of teachers never doing anything about the bullying so I quit telling my teachers about the bullying.”[15]

To make matters worse, the adults in charge of schools are sometimes bullies themselves.  Leaving aside the sometimes abusive use of physical restraint and seclusion, and other institutional forms of control and discipline (which will be the subject of a later post), individual teachers, aides, coaches, and school administrators sometimes victimize their students in appalling ways.  In Georgia, one teacher resigned, after a school determined she had repeatedly  sprayed Lysol into her student’s face.[16]  In Texas, a group of teachers gave a student awards for being “Most Gullible” and a “Drama King” at the end-of-year awards ceremony.[17]  In Michigan, a teacher recorded and distributed a video of herself and the school principal taunting a child who had gotten stuck in a chair.[18]  I come from a family of public school teachers, and I am very sympathetic to the difficulties teachers today face in the classroom, but there is no excuse for this kind of behavior.  Never.  Any.  Excuse.

 

 

 

[1] IdahoRose, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[2] On the reasons behind bullying autistics, see Rebekah Heinrichs, Perfect Targets:  Asperger Syndrome and Bullying (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing, 2003), as well as the articles cited below.

[3] M. C. Cappadocia, et al., “Bullying Experiences Among Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42 (2012), 267 and 271; Neil Humphrey and Judith Hebron, “Bullying of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Conditions:  A ‘State of the Field’ Review,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 19 (2015), 849.

[4] For comparison with neurotypical children and children with other special needs, see Jessica Schroeder, et al., “Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem:  A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44 (2014), 1522-26; Neil Humphrey and Judith Hebron, “Bullying of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Conditions:  A ‘State of the Field’ Review,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 19 (2015), 849.  For comparison with obese children, see Ryan Adams, Somer Bishop, and Julie Taylor, “Negative Peer Experiences in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities 52 (2017), 75-107.

[5] Jessica Schroeder, et al., “Shedding Light on a Pervasive Problem:  A Review of Research on Bullying Experiences Among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44 (2014), 1522.  Cynthia Kim offers an autobiographical account of how she went from victim to bully:  Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate:  A User Guide to an Asperger Life (London:  Jessica Kingsley, 2015), p. 14-15.

[6] A. Karna, M. Voeten, et al., “A Large-Scale Evaluation of the KiVa Antibullying Program, Grades 4-6,” Child Development 82 (2011), 311-30.

[7] LeeAnderson, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[8] Pandora_Box, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[9] Pandora_Box, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[10] Verdandi, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:

http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[11] CreativeInfluenza, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[12] Pandora_Box, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

[13] Some examples of the negative consequences of reporting:  MightyMorphin, in the “If You Were Bullied At School . . . “ discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=204456&start=45;

JoeDaBro, in the “My School Hates Autism” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=231793; Sparrow Rose Jones, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind (Self-published, 2013), p. 94.

[14] “Parents of Child with Autism File Bullying Lawsuit Against Omaha, Ark. School District,”  KY3 TV, December 12, 2017:  http://www.ky3.com/content/news/Parents-of-child-with-autism-file-bullying-lawsuit-against-Omaha-AR-School-District–463754753.html.

[15] ladyelaine, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=45.

[16] Carl Willis, “Mother Says Son Was Sprayed with Lysol by Teacher,” WSBTV, November 14, 2017: http://www.whio.com/news/national/mother-says-son-with-autism-was-sprayed-with-lysol-teacher/MoQdOQjYHI7i4NA35prrLJ/.

[17] Kristie Smith, “Educators Should Never Set Students Up to Be Bullied,” Dallas News, June, 2014:  https://www.dallasnews.com/news/special-needs/2014/06/09/educators-should-never-set-students-up-to-be-bullied.

[18] Lee Moran, “See It:  Teacher Films Herself, Principal Teasing Autistic Boy Stuck in Chair,” New York Daily News, February 26, 2014:  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/teacher-films-principal-teasing-autistic-boy-article-1.1702106.

[19] Tharja, in the “Bullied By Teachers???” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=98154&start=75

[20] thechadmaster, in the “How Did Your Teacher’s Deal with Bullies?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=146798.

 

Reactive “Aggression”: What Autistic People Have to Say

Scientists who study large populations have uncovered several risk factors for aggressive behavior in autistic children—lack of sleep, poor social and communication skills, irritability, etc. (see my last post).  In contrast, autistic people are less likely to focus on general risk factors than to describe their own personal experiences during childhood:  the specific situations in which they threatened or injured others, and the way they felt at the time.  Nevertheless, there are many commonalities among their experiences, commonalities which do not always correspond with what scientists have described.[1]  For example, while scientists tend to assume that all aggression is intentional, many autistic people report having engaged during childhood in unintentional aggression.  One type of unintentional aggression is what I call reactive “aggression”—and I am using quotation marks because I am not sure that what is described below truly qualifies as aggression at all.

 

Reactive “Aggression”

I have an instinctive fear of snakes.  It’s not a phobia.  If I have time to think about it, I can talk about and look at snakes.  I even petted a snake once, to show my kids that reptiles aren’t dangerous.  But if I am out walking and a harmless little garter snake wiggles across the sidewalk in front of me, I immediately find myself jumping a foot in the air and then running away.  And if—God forbid—a snake were to fall out of a tree onto my shoulder, the poor thing would get whacked hard to get it off me, even though I have no conscious intention of hurting it. My reaction is purely instinctive.

Many autistic people report a similar response to being touched by other people, which they may find intensely painful: “The pain I feel when someone touches me is like feeling needles that sting my flesh.”[2]  Or if touch is not exactly painful, it may still be intolerable in other ways:

I don’t feel pain but I cannot tolerate pressure, which is what I feel physically when touched, to the point where my brain perceives being touched as being crushed, and transmits a threat response. I also feel a complete sense of psychological invasion as others have said, and I get an immediate irresistible sense of nononono that I have to get away from. Can’t abide being touched.[3]

Averse to touch, autistic people may be able to avoid lashing out if they get some advance warning.  But if they are taken by surprise, they respond instinctively, in the same way I would respond to a snake suddenly landing on me:

 

i have often hit people who have touched me without warning, particularly if they touch me from behind, a sharp elbow flies backwards. however this is not advisable as people take offense to it & some hit back! it is a reflex reaction for me, i have no concious control over it.[4]

 

 

It is common for autistic students to hit out wildly when they get touched, and schools often interpret these reactive behaviors as aggressive.  The result is punishment, usually in the form of suspension or (for repeated incidents) expulsion:

 

I got suspended for hitting kids when they got too close (I can feel people’s energy or “chi” when I get close to them or they get close to me and it is physicaly painful) [5]

However, autistic writers often remember these childhood reactions as uncontrollable:

Until about the age of 12 or 13 I’d regularly scream and hit people for touching me. Not so bad these days but I still hate unwanted touch. When I was younger kids at school thought it was hilarious to poke me until I lost my temper. Being poked is extremely painful, I’m very sensitive to touch. I try telling people this and they think I’m exaggerating.[6]

Did any of you have a problem as a kid where if a kid hurt you (even unintentionally), you would hit them without thinking? I used to get suspended multiple times year for punching other kids because they pinched me between a desk or bumped me while playing soccer. It was a reflex I was unable to control until I was older.[7]

As both of the last quotations indicate, some children learn to control their reactions as they grow older.  However, even for adults this may require a tremendous amount of effort:

 

if someone touches my face, my cheek especially, i can barely control myself from hitting that person. being stuck in a slow moving crowd, i feel trapped and want to scream my lungs out. i feel like pushing people aside violently, i don’t do it because it’s wrong, but i slam my fist in an open palm and growl like an animal. i go crazy and no one notices.[8]

 

Children in general have a much more limited ability to maintain control over their reflexes.

 

 

The reflexive childhood “aggressor” usually does not intend to hurt anyone, knows perfectly well that hitting others is wrong, and after the fact often feels very badly about the way they have behaved:

When I was a kid-I was at a friends house when a friend of his . . . came up from behind and grabbed me-now I do not like to be touched or grabbed from behind-now I know its because of AS-I did not know it was him and I turned around and punched who ever it was in the mouth and it was him-he ran crying and I felt so bad that I hurt this boy who was just playing and meant no harm but I thought I was being attacked and hit this poor kid-I felt really bad,so bad I pledged I would never hurt anyone for any reason ever again and I still live up to that to this day.It still upsets me to think about the incident and the thought of hurting an innocent,harmless person.[9]

Should reactions which are instinctive, difficult to control, engaged in with no intent to harm, and often deeply regretted afterwards be consider “aggression”?  I would have to say “No.”  Certainly there will be a need for behavior interventions, to help these kids learn not to react so strongly to unexpected touch, but punishment seems inappropriate in such cases.

 

 

 

[1] In what follows, I will be drawing primarily on posts from the Wrong Planet website, which has thousands of autistic subscribers.  Like other quick posts on social media sites, these may contain errors of spelling and grammar.  This is simply the nature of such posts, which are usually composed in a hurry.

[2] Kairi96, in in the “I Feel Pain When Other People Touch Me” discussion:

http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=219950.

[3] C2V, in the “I Feel Pain When Other People Touch Me” discussion:

http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=219950.

[4] Sally, in the “About Hating Touch..” discussion: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=48437.

[5] PunkyKat, in the “Aspies—Ever Get Suspended/Expeled” discussion:

http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=83101.

[6] Squirsh, in the “Do You Get Irritated When People Touch You?” discussion: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=169499.

[7] bluecurry, in the “What Were You Like in Elementary School” discussion:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=226220.

[8] Felinesaresuperior, in the “Odd Things That Make You Feel Irrationally Angry” discussion:

https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=189358.

[9] Radiofixr, in the “Did Anyone Else LIKE Being Bullied?” discussion: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=129369.

Aggression Against Self and Others: What the Scientists Have to Say

Autistic students have, in the past, broken their teacher’s arms, knocked out their teeth, and even given them concussions.  There have been incidents in which students have banged their own heads against walls, scratched their arms until they bled, and bitten their fingers.  There have also been incidents in which their classmates have been injured.  So schools are rightly concerned about autistic kids engaging in behaviors—self-injury, punching, biting, and kicking—that are potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

Nevertheless, schools cannot treat every autistic child as a time-bomb, ready to explode at any moment.  There are certainly some students on the autism spectrum who must be treated with great care, but there are also many who have outbursts only under extreme circumstances, and still others who pose no threat at all.  Unfortunately, the research on the prevalence of aggression in this population remains limited, and what exists has various weaknesses.  Nevertheless, it is worth reviewing, because it shows that “the violent autistic child” is not nearly as common as the general public, as well as many teachers and school administrators, assume.

Estimates of “self-injurious behavior” (SIB), for example, have been skewed by the populations sampled.  One group of researchers looked at 250 children and teens with autism who were enrolled in genetic studies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.  They found that 52.3% had engaged in SIB at some point in their life.[1]  This study was often cited in the years after its publication in 2012, and the idea that more than half of autistic kids injured themselves became widely accepted.  In 2016, however, a different group of scholars published the results of their research on more than 8,000 autistic children tracked by the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network in the United States.  They pointed out that the 2012 study, conducted in a hospital, had “over-sampled” kids with challenging behaviors and major impairments.  The 2016 study placed the percentage of autistic kids who self-injured at around 27.7%.  This is still a significant number, but it is only about half that of the earlier, widely-cited study.[2]

Research on aggression against other people has been complicated by disagreements about terminology (the authors of one study noted that other researchers were reluctant even to use the term “aggression”[3]) and weakened by failure to distinguish clearly between the prevalence and persistence of different forms of aggression.  One study, based on a fairly large sample of children, concluded that 68% had at one time or another demonstrated aggression against their care-givers, and 49% had at one time or another been aggressive towards non-caregivers.[4]  It should be noted, however, that these figures covered the children’s entire lifetime, including the period when they were toddlers (who generally tend to do a fair amount of hitting and kicking, even if they are neurotypical.)  When the researchers examined behavior at the time of the study, they found that 56% of the autistic children sampled were “currently” aggressive towards their caregivers, while 32% were aggressive towards non-caregivers.

The authors of this study focused on these general numbers, which they claimed showed that the prevalence of aggression among autistic children was “high.”  However, when they broke down their figures still further, to look at the prevalence of different kinds of violence, it turns out that a much smaller number (35.4% of all the kids in the study) were currently engaged in what the researchers called “definite aggression”—hitting, kicking, punching, etc.  The other children in the “aggressive” category (roughly 25% of the total) were currently practicing only “mild aggression,” defined as playing roughly, verbally threatening other people, or lashing out after being provoked.  Most importantly, 39.8% of the sample showed no aggressive behavior at all.   lt turns out, then, that of the autistic kids in this study, more were currently avoiding all aggressive behaviors than were involved in “definite aggression.”  If we combine the non-aggressive and mildly aggressive categories, it turns out that 65% of the sample studied actually seem pretty similar to “normal” kids.  However, in practice it is quite difficult to know how autistic aggression compares with neurotypical aggression, since studies on aggression in autism generally involve no control group of non-autistic children.[5]

A number of researchers have examined the “risk factors” for self-injurious and aggressive behaviors.  In terms of SIB, one study found that abnormal sensory processing was the most important predictor of self-injury[6]  Other researchers conclude that SIB is particularly common not only in those with abnormal sensory processing, but also those with regressive forms of autism, irritability, hyper-activity, mood issues, sleep issues, and severe communication limitations.[7]  There are some indications that SIB may decline as communication improves over time.[8]  Factors associated with aggression against others include youth (aggressive behavior declines with age among autistic as well as neurotypical children), social and communication problems, higher levels of “repetitive behaviors” (stimming), and—oddly enough—higher family income.[9]  A very high percentage of autistic children and adolescents (50-80%) suffer from sleep problems.  One recent study found a particularly significant correlation between lack of sleep and various problem behaviors, including hyperactivity, irritability, and physical aggression in autistic youth.[10]

The scientific evidence, then, suggests that a significant minority of young people with autism will engage in self-injurious behaviors (27.7%) and significant aggression against others (35.4%).  (A further area of concern is “meltdown” behavior, which I will address in another post.)  According to scientists, the individuals who engage in these behaviors tend to be younger children, those who have gone through early regression, those who are irritable and hyperactive due to poor sleep, those unable to communicate in other ways, and those with the kinds of sensory processing that make the world unpredictable and often painful.  Teachers and administrators would do well to consider and try to mitigate these factors before they condemn autistic children who “act out.”

 

 

 

[1] Emma Duerden, Hannah Oatley, Kathleen Mak-Fan, et al., “Risk Factors Associated with Self-Injurious Behaviors in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42 (2012), 2460-70.

[2] Gnakub Soke, Steven Rosenberg, Richard Hamman, et al., “Brief Report:  Prevalence of Self-Injurious Behaviors among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder:  A Population-Based Study,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 46 (2016), 3607-14.

[3] Cristan Farmer and Michael Aman, “Aggressive Behavior in a Sample of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5 (2011), 317-23.

[4] Stephen Kanne and Micah Mazurek, “Aggression in Children and Adolescents with ASD:  Prevalence and Risk Factors,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41 (2011), 926-37.  The sample was made up of children enrolled in a multi-university research study on autism, which—like the hospital study mentioned above—probably “oversampled” those with challenging behaviors.

[5] There are many studies of aggressive behavior among children who have suffered trauma, who have been raised in poverty, etc.  I have found it difficult to find estimates for aggression among neurotypical children as a whole.  And in any case, different measures are used in studies on autistic and studies on non-autistic children, which makes comparisons virtually impossible.

[6] Emma Duerden, Hannah Oatley, Kathleen Mak-Fan, et al., “Risk Factors Associated with Self-Injurious Behaviors in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42 (2012), 2460-70

[7] G. Soke, S. Rosenberg, R. Hamman, et al., “Factors Associated with Self-Injurious Behaviors in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders:  Findings from Two Large National Samples,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 47 (2017), 285-96;

[8] Jeffrey Danforth, “Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB),” in Fred Volkmar, Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders (New York:  Springer, 2013), 110-39.

[9]  Stephen Kanne and Micah Mazurek, “Aggression in Children and Adolescents with ASD:  Prevalence and Risk Factors,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41 (2011), 926-37.  One might speculate that aggressive behaviors are attributed to factors other than autism in children with lower family incomes.

[10] Micah Mazurek and Kristin Sohl, “Sleep and Behavioral Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 46 (2016), 1906-15.

FBAs and BIPs

Teachers often want to move autistic students whose behavior they find disruptive out of their ordinary classrooms and into special education classrooms, or classrooms just for students with autism in the same school, or even into separate schools.  These segregated environments do offer smaller class size and more adult supervision.   However, they almost never provide the same academic opportunities as mainstream classrooms—separate is far from equal.  This is why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with autism be taught in the least restrictive environment possible for them.  And this is why teachers and administrators must take certain steps before changing a student’s placement from a less restrictive to a more restrictive environment.

 

The 1997 and 2004 re-authorizations of IDEA require schools to at least attempt to resolve the problem, by working to change the disruptive behavior, before a student can be removed from the mainstream classroom.  Schools must conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) of the student, to get a better idea of the reasons for the unwanted behaviors, and then use that information to develop and implement a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), designed to minimize or eliminate those behaviors.[1]

 

In FBA, data is collected on when and where the target behavior occurs, what its “antecedents” were and what its “consequences” are.  Various instruments are used to track behaviors and what happened just before and after in a systematic way; interviews are also conducted with the teacher, the parents, other adults familiar with the student, and ideally (but, in the case of autistic students, not very often) the student himself or herself.  The person doing the assessment then analyzes all this data in order to determine what function the behavior serves for the student.  (Does it help to attract attention?  Provide sensory stimulation?  Allow the student to escape from difficult tasks?)[2]  Once the function or functions are identified, then the school team (teachers, aides, administrators, psychologists, etc.) can develop a Behavior Intervention Plan.  They can decide how the student’s environment and interactions with others might be modified in order to discourage the disruptive behavior and how the student can be encouraged to engage in more positive behavior.  For example:  if a student tends to scream every time the bells ring for class change or for a fire alarm, then the environment might be modified by covering up nearby alarm bells to dampen the sound.  The teacher could let the student know when regular alarms are about to sound, and the student could be encouraged to put on noise-cancelling headphones when those regular alarms are about to go off.  A student who runs away during transitions from one classroom to another can be given positive attention for learning each of the steps required for a safer transition (stop and wait by the classroom door, hold the teacher’s hand in the hall, etc.).[3]

 

The FBA/BIP combination is the best means we currently have for helping autistic students with “disruptive” behaviors remain in mainstream classes.  However, it is far from being a perfect solution.  One serious problem is that the law only vaguely defines the conditions under which a FBA/BIP is necessary.  The re-authorized IDEA requires them ONLY if the disruptive behavior is considered a “manifestation of the student’s disability”—whatever that means.  State laws and regulations are not much clearer.[4]  In practice, this vagueness allows students to be removed from mainstream classrooms and even removed from ordinary public schools without any attempt to modify their behavior, if that behavior is not obviously a “manifestation” of their disability.  Autistic students engage in many behaviors that can be, and all too often have been, incorrectly understood as “willful” or “manipulative,” rather than arising from their autism.  As a result, many have been moved to more restrictive environments without any effort at all being made to help them.

 

Another problem is lack of expertise.  Ideally, a skilled school psychologist or other experienced specialist would be in charge of the FBA/BIP process.  In practice—especially in impoverished rural or inner city school districts—the burden often falls on teachers, who may have had no training at all in behavior analysis and intervention. [5] However well meaning these teachers may be, they are basically operating on the fly, and their attempts to modify complex student behavior are often ineffective.  And if their efforts fail, the autistic student is generally moved out of the mainstream classroom.

 

A final issue is the very nature of FBA/BIP.  Like ABA, the FBA/BIP process has its roots in the behaviorist school of psychology.  The focus is on observable behaviors rather than on the mental processes that lead to those behaviors.  And in interpreting those behaviors, the emphasis is always on observable antecedents and consequences, which provide some clues to the target behavior’s function for the person engaging in it.  Skilled behavior analysts can often learn why a particular behavior is happening, and can then develop a plan for modifying it.  But the reasons for other behaviors elude them, because the people they are studying actually have complex mental processes, in which long-term memory and reasoning, as well as simple reactions to the environment play a role.

 

No matter how finely honed the instruments used for tracking behavior may be, they are not meant capture the internal experience of the autistic student.  Invisible stressors go unnoticed, especially if the student is never interviewed during the FBA process, but also when an interview has taken place, unless the student is unusually self-aware.  The behavior analyst may not understand the extent of the student’s sleep deprivation, or the impact of chronic stomach pain.  They may not realize that a student who has been systematically bullied for many years has come to see apparently innocuous remarks by teachers and other students as insulting and infuriating.  They may not recognize that a particular smell arouses memories of a traumatic experience many years earlier.

 

Behavior analysts also often miss the cumulative impact of multiple stressors, especially when the earlier stressors are not easily observable.  When a student keeps getting up and using the pencil sharpener in math class immediately after lunch, for example, the behavior team will usually, and quite reasonably, assume that the chaos in the school cafeteria is creating so much stress that the student cannot deal with the demands of math problems immediately afterwards and is trying to escape from them.  They may try to modify the student’s lunchtime experience, by letting him or her eat in another setting.  However, this won’t solve the problem if the demands of math class represent the breaking point in a day that has involved not only the chaos of the lunch room, but also (unobserved) teasing from a sibling during breakfast, (unobserved) bullying on the bus, (unobserved) failure to understand a reading in English class, and (unobserved) feelings of humiliation in gym class.  If the lunchtime experience has been improved, and yet the student keeps on going to the pencil sharpener during math, this may actually represent the student doing his or her best to avoid a complete meltdown, rather than a student trying to “escape task demands.”  Under the circumstances, there are more humane responses than declaring the BIP a failure and taking the student out a math class altogether.

 

I am not trying to suggest that the FBA/BIP process is useless—far from it.  The schools that make use of it are at least trying to keep autistic students in mainstream classrooms, at a time when many other schools are not.  And often Behavior Intervention Plans do actually work, and unwanted behaviors are diminished or eliminated.  But sometimes BIPs don’t work, so teachers, aides and administrators might want to think more broadly and more creatively about ways to help students remain in their classrooms even when “disruptive” behaviors (so long as they are not actually harmful to people or property) continue.

 

I will return to the issue of the more harmful behaviors in the next post.

 

 

 

[1] Cynthia Dieterich, Nicole Snyder and Christine Villani, “Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plans:  Review of ther Law and Recent Cases,” Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal (2017), 195-217.

[2] On functional assessment of behavior in a clinical setting, see Pamela Neidert, Griffin Rookes, Makenzie Bayles, Jonathan Miller, “Functional Analysis of Problem Behavior,” in Derek Reed, Florence Di Gennaro Reed, and James Luiselli, eds., Handbook of Crisis Intervention and Developmental Disabilities (New York:  Springer, 2013), pp. 147-67.  On FBA as actually practiced in schools, see George Noell and Kristin Gansle, “Introduction to Functional Behavior Assessment,” in Angeleque Akin-Little, Steven Little, Melissa Bray and Thomas Kehle, eds., Behavioral Interventions in Schools:  Evidence-based Positive Strategies (Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association, 2009), pp. 43-58; Alison Bruhn, et al., “Assessing and Treating Stereotypical Behaviors in Classrooms Using a Functional Approach,” Behavioral Disorders 41 (2015), 21-37.

[3] Nancy Stockall and Lindsay Dennis, “Stop the Running:  Addressing Elopement in Young Children with Disabilities,” Young Exceptional Children 19 (2016), 3-13.

[4] Lauren Collins and Perry Zirkel, “Functional Behavior Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans:  Legal Requirements and Professional Recommendations,” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions 19 (2017), 180-90.

[5] Michael Couvillon, Lyndal Bullock and Robert Gable, “Tracking Behavior Assessment Methodology and Support Strategies:  A National Survey of How Schools Utilize Functional Behavioral Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans,” Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties 14 (2009), 215-28; Lindsay Oram, Sarah Owens and Melissa Maras, “Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plans in Rural Schools:  An Exploration of the Need, Barriers and Recommendations,” Preventing School Failure 60 (2016), 305-10.  Many schools have no trained psychologist available to conduct FBAs.  In 2014-15, there was only one school psychologist for every 1,381 students in the United States:  National Association of School Psychologists,  Shortages in School Psychology: Challenges to Meeting the Growing Needs of U.S. Students and Schools, Research Summaries (Bethesda, MD:  National Association of School Psychologists, 2017).

Disruptive Behaviors: The “Movement Behaviors”

 

“[School] was a nightmare full of loud sounds, bright colors, and noisy children.  The adoration I received for being ‘so smart’ faded with each grade.  I could not understand what was happening.  Instead of praise, I was constantly getting reprimanded.  Nothing made sense.  Even [the school principal] no longer meant what he said.  He said I could come and see him whenever I wanted, but he lied.  When I rose from my seat, walked out of my classroom, and went down the stairs to the main office to see him, I was in trouble.  ‘Young lady, you cannot just walk out of [the teacher’s] class and come down here.’  Tears welled up in my eyes as I tried to make sense of it.”[1]

 

Many autistic students move their bodies in ways other students do not (or at least not as regularly).  They may flap their hands, bounce up and down in their seats, twirl in the aisles, hide under their desks, get up and wander around the classroom, or try to leave the room or even the school.  (They may also behave in more disturbing ways.  Meltdowns, self-injury, and aggression towards others will be the subject of another post–for now, I want to focus on the actions just described:  flapping, bouncing, rocking, and various “out-of-seat behaviors” like hiding, wandering, and running away.)

 

Schools often view these “movement behaviors,” even more than vocalizations, as barriers to the inclusion of autistic students in mainstream classrooms.  Movement behaviors make many teachers uncomfortable because they break the visual pattern of an orderly classroom and appear to undermine discipline.  Some administrators and teachers also attribute disturbing motivations to students who behave in these ways.  They may view certain types of movement as evidence of defiance or disrespect, as acts of wilful disruption.  They fail to realize that autistic students who flap and rock and hide are not generally trying to be disruptive (with a few exceptions, to be described below).

 

In the first place, because autistic students often do not pick up on social cues from their fellow students, they may simply not understand why they can’t just move their bodies the way they want in school.  If they bounce or twirl at home, they assume that they can also bounce or twirl at school.  They may view demands that they stop as nonsensical, or–especially when their movements are related to sensory issues—they may simply be unable to stop.  As researchers and teachers are slowly coming to realize, movement is often a necessity for autistic children.[2]  Rocking may alleviate dizziness, making a student feel less likely to fall out of his or her seat.  Bouncing may help a child locate his or her body in space, diminishing the terrifying feeling of being “disembodied.”  If a fire alarm suddenly goes off, the only choice for some children will be to run away from an intolerably painful noise.  Many students with autism use movement to distract or protect themselves from sensory overload, or–on the other hand–to gain the sensory stimulation they need to remain focused on their schoolwork.

 

If some teachers are beginning to understand the connection between movement behaviors and sensory needs, far fewer understand how other factors are involved.  They may not realize that some autistic students move around because of their very eagerness to learn.  A child with auditory or visual differences may rove through the classroom trying to find a spot where he or she can access the information the teacher is presenting.  A child keenly interested in nature or in the trucks rolling down the street outside the school may run to the windows or even outside the school to pursue those interests.  Students bored with their own “toned-down” curriculum may wander around the classroom to catch a glimpse of what other students are doing.[3]

 

Emotional as well as intellectual issues may play a role.  Jeanne Davide-Rivera, the author of the passage cited above, left her classroom to visit the nice principal she had met her first day of school—the one who had actually told her she could visit him any time she wanted!  She found it intensely confusing when she was told that her behavior was wrong.  In her case, movement was a response to the desire for human connection—a desire autistic students are often assumed not to have.  Movement is even more often a response to anxiety associated with heavy academic or social unease.  In some children, anxiety leads to increased rocking, bouncing, or hiding.  Emotional distress caused by real or perceived academic “failures,” or by cruelty on the part of teachers and classmates often results in “elopement” or bolting out of a classroom or school.[4]

 

It remains the case, however, that most movement behaviors are either well-intentioned (that is, the student is actually trying very hard to be “good”) or unavoidable (he or she simply needs to move).  Only rarely is autistic “acting up” intended disrupt the class—and even then, this is not always for the reasons teachers or administrators imagine.  To give one unexpected example:  children overwhelmed by the visual and auditory stimuli in their classrooms may discover that they can hear and understand their lessons better from a desk in the hallway, which they then learn they can acquire for themselves through some planned infraction of the rules about movement.[5]  For these children, engaging in “undesirable” movement behaviors becomes the key to learning.

 

More commonly, however, deliberate misbehavior is a planned reaction to intolerable stress.  It is an undeniable fact that autistic students seldom enjoy school.  Much more often they experience school as “a nightmare” or as “hell.”[6]  Few administrators or teachers understand how painful school is for these students.  Day after day they must endure constant bombardment by sensory stimuli, the terror of (often unsuccessful) social interactions, and—most serious of all—the attentions of sadistic bullies.  (More on bullying in another post.)  After they have suffered for months or even years, some of these students consciously decide to behave in ways they know are wrong, in the hopes of being suspended and allowed to stay home.  The Wrong Planet website (an online forum for those with autism) has had several discussion threads about school suspension, and a common theme is seeking out suspension as a way to avoid bullies.[7]  What is most striking about these posts, however, is how often the authors used this approach only as a last, desperate resort.

 

So when teachers or school administrators are faced with autistic students who bounce, rock, twirl, and elope, they would do well to consider all the other possible reasons for these movement behaviors, before assuming that their students are simply being disrespectful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jeanne Davide-Rivera,  Twirling Naked in the Streets and No One Noticed:  Growing Up with Undiagnosed Autism ([Location Unclear]:  David and Goliath Publishing, 2013), p. 34.

[2] Sadly, there remain so-called “experts” who assume that these children are deliberately misbehaving:  e.g., Deborah Napolitano and David McAdam, “Problem Behavior,” in Tristram Smith, ed., Making Inclusion Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders:  An Evidence-Based Guide (New York:  Guilford Press, 2012), p. 304:  “Throughout the day, students continually have a choice [emphasis added] of whether to display the problem behavior . . .”

[3] Consider the case of Laura, described by Paula Kluth, You’re Going to Love This Kid:  Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, 2nd ed. (Baltimore:  Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2010), p. 202.

[4] See the post by WAautistic guy on a thread about “What Are Your Worst Experiences at School” on Wrong Planet:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=166310&start=30.

[5] Davide-Rivera, Twirling Naked in the Streets, p. 36.

[6] See the thread entitled “Public Education is HELL for Aspie Children:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?p=1100890;  skimming through the “School” forum as a whole makes clear why school is so often found intolerable by those with autism.

[7] E.g., the following:“Anyone Ever Threatened with Suspension?” (http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=148672) and “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?”(http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004)

PLACEMENT: WHERE DO AUTISTIC STUDENTS LEARN BEST?

 

By law, students with autism are entitled to a free, appropriate, public education in the “least restrictive environment” that is “appropriate” for them.  But exactly what environment that should be is an extremely tricky question.  The educational placement of autistic students has given rise to explosive debates in newspapers, on twitter feeds, and during legislative sessions, as well as in EIP meetings, law courts, and even family gatherings.  One reason for this is that every single autistic student is different, and what works for one, will almost by definition not work for others.  But all too often, other factors—which should legally be irrelevant—come into play.  One recent study, for example, has shown that individual state policies and finances may make as much difference as a student’s abilities in determining his or her placement.[1]

 

The inclusion of autistic students in mainstream classes, alongside their neurotypical peers throughout the day, is theoretically the gold standard, the “least restrictive” of all educational environments.  However, full inclusion is also the most contentious form of placement, and not usually for the right reasons.   Emotion, ideology, and prejudice shape the arguments of both opponents and proponents of inclusion. [2]

 

On the one hand, it seems clear that full inclusion offers autistic children their best chance for a good education that can lead to college, employment, and independence.  In every other setting (except, under some circumstances, the homeschool), educational offerings are much more limited and future opportunities restricted.  Segregated special education classes and separate “autism schools” usually offer little in the way of real academics, even though they may be excellent at teaching functional living and social skills.  As a result, parents who believe that their kids are capable of academic achievement are often prepared to fight like grizzly bears to keep their kids in the mainstream classroom for all or most of the day.[3]

 

Grizzliness is necessary because while many teachers and school administrators support inclusion whenever possible, other educators—along with some public figures and some parents of neurotypical students—are vehemently opposed to it.  The reasons given for this vary, but the central claim is that autistic students (usually all lumped together in these arguments, despite the huge differences among them) behave in ways that are disruptive to their classmates and the school.

 

According to a 1994 memorandum from the federal Office of Special Education, excessively disruptive behavior can be used as a rationale to remove a child from an inclusive educational setting:

 

If a student with a disability has behavioral problems that are so disruptive in a regular classroom that the education of other students is significantly impaired, the needs of the disabled student cannot be met in that environment.

However, before making such a determination, school districts must ensure that consideration has been given to the full range of supplementary aids and services that could be provided to the student in the regular educational environment to accommodate the unique needs of the disabled student. If the placement team determines that even with the provision of supplementary aids and services, that student’s IEP could not be implemented satisfactorily in the regular educational environment, that placement would not be the LRE placement for that student at the particular time, because her or his unique educational needs could not be met in that setting. [4]

But precisely what behaviors reach the “so disruptive” threshold?  And what proportion of autistic students actually do disrupt classes any more than their neurotypical classmates?  These questions will be the subject of the next few posts.

 

 

 

 

[1] Jennifer Kurth, “Educational Placement of Students with Autism,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 30 (2015), pp. 249-56.

[2] Note, for example, the over-the-top language found on journalist Richard Moore’s Autism page:  http://www.rmmoore1.com/autism.  He describes autism as an “epidemic” and compares it to a natural disaster:  “Now, in the United States and around the globe, a powerful earthquake of arguable origin has set off yet another health tsunami, which at this very moment is racing across the ocean of our lives, already affecting millions and millions, with millions more still in its path. This time it is a neurological disorder called autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder…”  In writing about education, Moore insists that autistic students (all lumped together) simply “learn differently” than neurotypical or even other special needs students do.   He describes demands for inclusion as largely driven by ideology (while ignoring the “different and less” ideology that drives his own writing).

[3] E.g., the post “Autism and IEPs and Grizzly Mommas . . . Oh My!!”  on the Autism Sparkles blog:  https://autismsparkles.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/autism-and-ieps-and-grizzly-mommas-oh-my/.  Bear in mind (pun intended), that these ferocious parents are not always right—sometimes the mainstream classroom is simply intolerable for their children, who would be better served as home (if possible), or in a special education classroom with additional academic programming to suit their needs.  More on this below.

[4] Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “Questions and Answers on Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Requirements of the Idea,” November 23, 1994.

Teaching Autistic Children: Perceptual Issues

Another significant, but seldom-recognized problem has to do with perceptual issues.[1]  A student cannot learn if she cannot see or hear what is being presented to her.[2] Very, very few public school teachers understand how perceptual systems—which directly affect learning—work in autistic students.  For example:  many (not all—remember: each autistic individual is different) have difficulties with auditory processing.[3]  It may take them a fraction of a second longer that neurotypical students to turn spoken sounds into intelligible speech, and this is just long enough to cause significant problems, as they constantly try to play “catch-up” with the rest of the class  They may also find it difficult to separate the significant sounds they are supposed to be hearing from background noise.  As a result, these students are often unable to follow a lecture or video, or comply with their teacher’s spoken demands.  Group work is even worse, as the autistic student struggles to separate what his or her own group is saying from what is going on in other groups around the classroom.  There are work-arounds for auditory processing issues, such as special seating near the front of the classroom, close-captioning for videos, the provision of both spoken and written instructions, exemption from group work, etc.  But the teacher must first be aware of the problem before solutions can be found.  Many a well-meaning and thoughtful teacher has caused frustration, withdrawal, even “meltdowns,” by insisting on a phonics-based approach to reading for a student with poor auditory processing skills. For such a student, a “whole-word” approach might work better. [4]

 

Other autistic kids have trouble with visual processing.[5]  They may be able to see clearly only with peripheral vision, in which case a teacher who insists that they “look at me” is actually ensuring that they will not see what the teacher is doing.  Meares-Irlen, “Scotopic Sensitivity” or “visual stress” syndrome is also often present in autistic kids.  Letters, words and numbers will appear to move around on the pages of a book or on a classroom whiteboard, making it almost impossible to follow what is being taught.  Some students affected by this syndrome may be helped with colored overlays or tinted glasses.[6]  When these don’t work, there are other work-arounds.  My own daughter, for example, struggles with math problems because of “floating” numbers.  She has developed her own (admittedly, rather time-consuming) system of writing out the problems using different colored pencils for different rows or columns.  The colors helped her keep numbers in their proper places.  Reading on an Ipad, with a font size large enough so that only a single line of text appears on the screen can help those with this syndrome with reading.  Teachers can help students find ways to deal with visual processing issues, but—again—only if they are aware of these issues in the first place.

 

If students can’t make sense of what they hear or see in the classroom, they will inevitably fail in school.  It is up to trained specialists to diagnose their auditory or visual problems, and it is then up to their teachers to find ways to help them overcome these perceptual issues.

 

 

 

 

[1] On sensory perception issues in autistic schoolchildren, see Olga Bogdashina’s excellent Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Aspergers Syndrome (London:  Jessica Kingsley, 2003).  On sensory experience in autism more generally, see J. Horder, C. Wilson, M. Mendez and D. Murphy, “Autistic Traits and Abnormal Sensory Experiences in Adults,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44 (2014), 1461-69.

[2] There are work-arounds, of course, used in schools for the deaf or blind, but most autistic students are not actually deaf or blind, so these techniques may not work for them, even in the unlikely case that they are offered them.

[3] P. Dawes, D. Bishop, T. Sirimanna, et al.  [“Profile and Aetiology of Children Diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD),” International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 72 (2008), 483–89], found that about 9% of children referred to a clinic specializing in auditory processing disorders also had a diagnosis of autism; this suggests that autistic children are much more likely to have an APD than neurotypical children.

[4] Leslie Broun, “Teaching Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to Read,” Teaching Exceptional Children 36 (2004), 36-40.  See also: Kate Nation, Paula Clarke, Barry White, and Christine Williams, “Patterns of Reading Ability in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36 (2006), 911-19;  Kelly Whalon, Stephanie al Otaiba, and Monica Delano, “Evidence-Based Reading Instruction for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 24 (2009), 3-16; Janet Spector, “Sight Word Instruction for Children with Autism:  An Evaluation of the Evidence Base,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41 (2011), 1411-22.

[5] Unfortunately, the scientific study of visual processing issues in autism is still in its infancy.  Even the quite recent articles often fail to look beyond the most basic issues of face and pattern recognition:  e.g., Marlene Behrman, “Visual Processing,” in the Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, ed. F. Volker, P. Pelphrey, and D. Powers (New York:  Springer, 2013), pp. 3290-99.  Experienced teachers may offer more reliable information on how visual issues affect schoolwork:  e.g., Bogdashina, Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism.

[6] The Irlen method of using colored overlays and glasses to treat these individuals remains highly controversial, but has proved life-changing for some autistic individuals.  A famous example is that of the late Donna Williams, the Australian writer and autism activist.

The Challenges Facing Autistic Children in America’s Schools

After 1990, the number of young people with autism diagnoses educated in public schools in the United States rose rapidly;  the legal mandates of IDEA ensured that still others were educated in private institutions paid for with public funds.  Overall, then, access to educational institutions has improved dramatically for autistic children within recent decades.  It is doubtful, though, whether many of these children have reached their full educational potential.  Despite greatly improved access to schools, huge challenges continue to face autistic children seeking an education.  Few teachers are adequately trained to meet their learning needs, and indeed, those needs are still poorly understood even by “experts.”  The educational environment remains hostile, from both a sensory and a social perspective.  School buildings and classrooms are full of often unnecessary sensory stressors and distractions, not to mention intimidating bullies.  Moreover, autistic students continue to be disproportionately subject to severe and even life-threatening discipline, often for fairly minor infractions of the rules. These challenges will be the subject of the next few posts on this blog.

The most serious problem by far facing autistic students in American schools, however, is the presumption of stupidity, which leads to appallingly low academic expectations.  In one recent research project, only 56% of the autistic students studied had any academic skills at all listed in their IEP goals.  Their teachers simply did not expect them to reach grade-level academic content standards.[1]  This is because far too many teachers continue to associate autism with intellectual disability, even though, as we have already seen, current scientific research indicates that autistic people have the same range of intellectual abilities as everyone else.  The ability to speak (expressive language), depending as it does on physical capabilities, is certainly not a good indicator of intelligence.  Nevertheless, far too many (indeed, most) schools continue to assign empty labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” to their autistic students, based on speaking ability and extremely problematic I.Q. testing.  Those labelled “low-functioning” are generally considered intellectually disabled.  They tend to be be shunted off into special education classrooms, which provide some life-skill and social-skill training, but often almost nothing in the way of academics.

 

One such individual, Michael Weinstein, describes his school experience in this way:

The school officials tested me and said I had an IQ of less than 70 and would never get a high school diploma, so I spent a lot of time learning how to wipe off cafeteria tables, sort utensils, and make little arts and crafts projects. Although I understood everything that was said to me, I could not indicate in any way, verbally or non-verbally, that I understood them.[2]

Eventually Mr. Weinstein learned to type, enabling him to demonstrate his genius-level I.Q. and his exceptional skills in mathematics.  Similarly, Philip Reyes reports that his teachers “were well meaning but believed I could not understand much of anything because I could not talk or write to communicate that I was smart and understood everything going on around me.”  Instead, Philip says, he was trained like an animal in school, “as everyone tried to make me act normally with candy rewards.”[3]

There is no inherent reason why special education classrooms cannot be intellectually challenging, but in practice they seldom are.  Bright young people may spend years in these classes hearing basic arithmetic facts or the names of colors repeated over and over again, but learning nothing that might later help them as either workers or citizens.  Ido Kedar, another non-speaking autistic, fiercely criticizes the thinking behind these practices:  “The assumption that people with severe autism all have impaired thinking has resulted in the underestimating of the true abilities of thousands of individuals, lack of adequate educational opportunities, isolation, loneliness, boredom, frustration, hopelessness, and a life of entrapment within one’s own body. This price is too high.”[4]

 

[1] Sara Witmer, and Summer Ferreri, “Alignment of Instruction, Expectations and Accountability Testing for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 29: 3 (2014), 136-38.

[2] Michael Weinstein, “Life with Autism” on the Golden Hat Foundation blog:  http://www.goldenhatfoundation.org/about-us/blog/125-golden-hat-foundation-blog-70211

[3] “Communication Device Opens Up the World to Nonverbal Autistic Boy, Buffalo Evening News 12/3/15:  http://buffalonews.com/2015/12/02/communication-device-opens-up-the-world-to-nonverbal-autistic-boy/.

[4] Ido Kedar, “Motor Difficulties in Severe Autism,” on the Ido in Autismland blog:  http://idoinautismland.com/?p=376.

The Education of Autistic Children, 1975-1990

The efforts of advocacy groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, the National Society for Crippled Children (later known as Easterseals), and the Association for Retarded Children (today known simply as the ARC) gradually increased public awareness of disabled children and the difficulties they faced during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Under pressure from these groups and from their constituents, Congress began investigating the lack of educational opportunities for the disabled, and then experimenting with legislative solutions, such as offering grants to school districts for the development of (segregated) educational programs for the disabled. These early legislative efforts met with only limited success, however.  In 1971-72, it was estimated that only 17 states were educating even half of their identified children with disabilities; many other states were offering education to less than a third.[1]  At the same time, exposés of the horrible conditions under which disabled children lived in many state institutions were further increasing public demand for the placement of these children in real schools.[2]

Changes were occurring in the courts, as well.  After the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), which highlighted the evils of segregating schoolchildren by race, advocacy groups and sometimes individual parents began bringing lawsuits against school districts for excluding and segregating children based on disability.  Many of these lawsuits failed, but the courts found in favor of the plaintiffs in several significant cases in the early 1970s, establishing the principles that even children with severe disabilities were entitled to an education, and that local districts could not use the excuse of lack of funds to exclude disabled children from school.[3]

The combination of increased public pressure, legislative precedent, and court decisions eventuallly led to the passage of the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975.[4]  The EAHCA mandated that all children, even the most severely disabled, must receive a “free, appropriate,public education”—thereby laying the foundations for our current system of special education.  It required that school districts identify the disabled children within their borders and then develop a plan for them to receive the educational services they needed.  In order to be “appropriate,” their education should come as close as possible to that offered to non-disabled peers (while still being tailored to the needs of the individual child), and should be offered in the “least restrictive environment” possible—ideally in the same classroom, or at least in the same school building as their peers.  The Education for All Handicapped Children Act also laid out processes through which concerned parents could challenge a school’s decisions about their child’s education.  In the decades since 1975, EAHC has been repeatedly reauthorized and refined (and in 1990 re-named, as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA).

Passing such a law was a challenge in 1975, but implementing it has proved even more difficult.  To begin with, there have always been funding shortfalls.  In the EAHC, the federal government promised to cover 40% of the costs of educating children with disabilities, but in reality the highest percentage of costs ever covered was around 17% and more often it has been around 11-12%.[5]   Even when the states fulfilled their own financial obligations (which has not always been the case), there has never really been enough money for schools to work with.  One result is that the essential infrastructure for educating disabled children—ramps, accessible bathrooms, signs in braille, etc.—were missing from almost all schools in 1975 and remains substandard in many places even today.  (Fans of the new television show “Speechless” will remember the scene in which the mother of a child in a wheelchair, who has been asked to use the same inadequate ramp used to move the school’s trash bins, sarcastically challenges the school principal to distinguish between people and trash.)

In 1975 most school administrators knew little about disabled children, and even less about the supports they needed to thrive in school; most teachers had no training at all in working with them.  This situation has improved greatly over the decades, although there still remain many opportunities for improvement.  In 1975, however, dealing with kids who were deaf or blind, or those who had motor challenges was considered a major challenge.  The struggle to provide a “free, appropriate, public education” for a psychotic or mentally retarded child, let alone one with the still rare diagnosis of autism, was overwhelming.[6]  The fact is, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed, most educators had never even heard of autism.  (Hence the appearance in education journals during the late 1970s of various articles designed to explain the condition to them.[7])

What, then, were teachers to do when they were assigned to teach some of the few children diagnosed with autism?  At first, far too many settled for simply “killing time.”  The author of a 1980 paper took a very dim view of the schedule in use in one autism classroom she had visited:

Following such a schedule, it seems assured that, after 11,340 hours of educational opportunity over 12 years of schooling, the students would realize 1,800 hours of bathroom; 2,340 hours of snack, choices, circles, and goodbye’s; 2,880 hours of playground; and assuming that ‘centers’ equals ‘instruction,’ 2,520 hours or 2-2/3 years of instruction.  Unfortunately, approximations of such a schedule can be found in too many classrooms for students with autism and other severely handicapping conditions.[8] 

She proposed a much tougher schedule, focused on teaching speech and other “functional” skills to these children.  “Functional” became a buzzword in the field of special education over the course of the next decade, a way of identifying useful life skills ranging from toileting to meal preparation to riding the bus.  The adjective seldom referred to academic skills, because, as we shall see, these were increasingly viewed as inappropriate, or “non-functional” for those with autism.

In early state efforts at implementing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, when autism was mentioned at all, it was typically listed among the emotional disorders, along with schizophrenia.[9]  This was in keeping with the traditional understanding of autism that had prevailed in the United States since Leo Kanner first wrote about the condition in the 1940s.  When teachers and administrators in the late 1970s encountered a child who had actually been diagnosed as “autistic,” they were usually told that the child’s problems were psychogenic, caused by cold, withdrawn parents (more specifically “refrigerator mothers”).  As late as 1985, a handbook written for teachers in mainstream classrooms in Minnesota listed autism as an emotional disorder, although the author noted that “the classification of autism as an emotional disturbance is currently being questioned.”[10]

Its classification was being questioned by educators in the 1980s, because scientists’ views of autism had changed dramatically during the 1970s.  Researchers like Michael Rutter in England and Bernard Rimland in the United States had come to see the condition as a developmental rather than an emotional disorder—as “biogenic,” rather than “psychogenic” in origin.  References to the work of these researchers began to appear in educational journals in the late 1970s,[11] but the new understanding of autism took at least another decade to achieve mainstream status.  Nevertheless, as educators gradually began to accept the idea that autism was a developmental disorder, they also began to adopt scientists’ faulty assumptions about autism and intelligence.[12]  By the late 1980s, children with a diagnosis of autism were automatically assumed to be intellectually disabled (“mentally retarded” in the terminology of the day).  What had been two separate diagnostic categories in earlier decades—the rare “autistic” and the much more common “mentally retarded”—began to flow together to form one.  In educational circles autism came to mean simply mental retardation accompanied by what were usually called “bizarre” behaviors.

And this meant that even those autistic children who appeared quite bright came to be viewed as cognitively impaired—in other words, their apparent abilities were deceptive.  It might look like an autistic child could read, but he was by definition unable to comprehend what he was reading;  it might look like an autistic child could multiply, but she was merely performing rote actions, without understanding what those actions meant.[13]  Attempting to provide further academic instruction beyond what was needed to count change in a store or read a street sign was futile at best.  And so the main subjects taught in classes specifically designed for autistic children were speech and language learning, and “functional” life skills—as evidenced by the frequent appearance of articles on techniques for teaching these subjects in educational journals during the 1980s, and the almost complete absence of articles on ways to teach autistic students academic skills such as reading, writing, or math.

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 meant, then, that more autistic children than ever before were served by public schools.  However, they were not served well by those schools, partly because of the faulty expectations mentioned above, and partly because of faulty diagnoses.   Few doctors knew much about autism in the 1980s, and they very often misdiagnosed autistic children.  In 2013, there was a brief discussion on “What were you diagnosed with in the 80s?” on the Wrong Planet website. [14]  It turns out, as we might expect, that although many of the participants had been taken to multiple specialists in their childhood, almost none had been diagnosed with autism.  Instead, they received a variety of labels.  Some—those who had good verbal skills and the ability to disguise their autistic characteristics—were declared “normal” (if a little “weird”).  They were often able to remain in general educational classrooms.  A subset of this group was diagnosed with learning disabilities (especially attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and received some supports from their schools.  Most, however, still struggled to learn without supports, suffered from severe bullying, and far too often dropped out.  As one contributor put it:  “Many people with AS back in the 1980s just struggled or coped as best they could without any diagnosis. Unless you had a ‘breakdown’, or were caught trying to commit suicide, or were in trouble with the police (‘delinquent’ or ‘troubled’) you were usually left to sink or swim.” Another reports:  “I was just considered weird, strange, outcast, bullied and generally rejected by my peers. I just learned to function and survive by myself, for myself, with myself.” [15]

Many other autistic children were labelled mentally ill (obsessive-compulsive, schizophrenic, severely depressed, bipolar, socially anxious, borderline-personality).[16]  In theory, the public schools were expected to serve the “emotionally disturbed,” but few were equipped to do so effectively, so most of these children had their educations interrupted by visits to psychiatric institutions.  Still others were labelled “mentally retarded.”  One highly articulate participant in the Wrong Planet discussion describes how she was originally thought to be autistic when she was examined back in 1986; however, her doctor eventually “settled on the diagnosis of Mental Retardation because I did not fit all the requirements for Classic Autism.”[17]  She spent years bouncing back and forth between special education and mainstream classes.

And finally there were the few who were actually diagnosed as autistic.  They, too, were considered “mentally retarded” (usually “profoundly mentally retarded”) because intellectual disabiity had become an integral part of the educational establishment’s understanding of autism.  The new educational outreach to disabled children had little impact on them.  In many states, the autistic and the “profoundly mentally retarded” were still considered “ineducable,” and relegated to institutions where they received only a nominal education.  As Mel Baggs, a non-speaking, multiply-handicapped autistic puts it:  “I spent the majority of my teen years in either no school, institution schools, or special ed. And I knew that to the rest of the world none of us were real.”[19]  In other states, members of these groups were educated either in segregated schools or in separate special education classrooms within regular schools, that focused on communication and “functional” skills.[20]  This meant that many children who were actually quite bright—capable of learning and even excelling at academic subjects—were denied the opportunity to do so by the simple fact of their diagnosis and educational placement.  The educational goal had become simply to have them exhibit fewer “bizarre autistic behaviors,” and perhaps learn a few self-care skills.  And sadly, this remained the goal in many places well beyond 1990.

[1] Cited by Ruth Colker, Disabled Education:  A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York:  New York University Press, 2013), pp. 25-26.

[2] E.g., Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan’s Christmas in Purgatory:  A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation (privately distributed, 1966; republished 1974 by Human Policy Press in Syracuse, NY); Bill Baldini’s television reporting on Pennhurst State School and Hospital in East Vincent, PA, 1968; Geraldo Rivera’s television reporting on Willow State School for the developmentally disabled on Staten Island, NY, in 1972.

[3] Pete Wright, “The History of Special Education Law,” on the Wrightslaw website:  http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/art/history.spec.ed.law.htm.

[4] Ruth Colker, Disabled Education:  A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York:  New York University Press, 2013): see pp. 17-43 on the EAHCA.

[5] Marjorie Coeyman, “Leaving No Child Behind is Expensive,” Christian Science Monitor 12/26/2001, p. 19; Christina Samuels, “Special Ed. Law Wrought Complex Changes,” Education Week 35:12 (November 11, 2015).

[6] The statistics commonly used in the 1970s (based on research from the 1960s) placed the prevalence of autism at somewhere between 2 and 4.5 out of every 10,000 people.  Compare this with today’s prevalence statistics, which identify roughly 1.5 out of 100 people as autistic:  https://spectrumnews.org/news/algorithm-automates-efforts-estimate-autism-prevalence/.

[7] E.g., James McDonald and George Sheperd, “The Autistic Child:  A Challenge for Educators,” Psychology in the Schools 13 (1976), 248-56; Glen Dunlap,Robert Koegel, and Andrew Egel, “Autistic Children in School,” Exceptional Children 45 (1979), 552-58.

[8] Anne Donnellan, “An Educational Perspective on Autism: Implications for Curriculum Development and Personnel Development,” in Barbara Wilson and Anneke Thompson, eds., Critical Issues in Educating Autistic Children and Youth (Washington, DC:  United States Department of Education, 1980), p.58.

[9] Jean Mack, “An Analysis of State Definitions of Severely Emotionally Disturbed” (pamphlet), (Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, 1980), p. 10; J. Gregory Olley, “Organization of Educational Services for Autistic Children and Youth,” in Barbara Wilson and Anneke Thompson, eds., Critical Issues in Educating Autistic Children and Youth (Washington, DC:  United States Department of Education, 1980), pg. 13.

[10] Joan Schoepke, “Autism,” in Resource Manual on Disabilities, ed. Polly Edmund, Sue Peterson, et al., (Minneapolis:  Pacer Center, 1985), p. 89.  Oddly, in 1982 Hawaii shifted autism from the “emotionally disturbed” category to “other health impaired:”  Memo from Donnis H. Thompson (State Superintendant of Education) to District Superintendants, Principals, Special Services Teams and Special Education Teachers, “Addendum to “Programs and Services for the Orthopedically Handicapped and Other Health Impaired” Section of “Program Standards and Guidelines for Special Education and Special Services in Hawaii” (September, 1982).  The argument was that autism was distinct from mental retardation, emotional disorder, or learning disorder, and the only remaining category was “other health impairment.”

[11] Glen Dunlap,Robert Koegel, and Andrew Egel, “Autistic Children in School,” Exceptional Children 45 (1979), 552.

[12] See my earlier posts on “Autism and Intelligence.”

[13] Sam B. Morgan, “Understanding the Diagnosis of Autism:  Initial Counseling of Parents and Other Family Members,”, Meeting Their Needs: Provision of Services to the Severely Emotionally Disturbed and Autistic:  Conference Proceedings (Memphis, TN, 1984), pp. 48-49.

[14] “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 80s?” on Wrong Planet:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=243365

[15] Posts by One A-N and TalusJumper to the “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 1980s?” discussion on Wrong Planet:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=243365.

[16] “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 1980s?” discussion on Wrong Planet:  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=243365.

[17] MusicIsLife2Me, “My Possible Wrong Diagnosis of Mental Retardation” on Wrong Planet:

http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=217277.

[18] Charles Martel Hale, Jr.  “I Had No Means to Shout” (Bloomington, IN:  1st Books, 1999), p. 25.

[19] Mel Baggs, “Empty Mirrors and Redwoods,” published May 12, 2014 on the Ballastexistenz blog:

https://ballastexistenz.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/empty-mirrors-and-redwoods/.

[20] See the data provided by Douglas Biklen, “The Myth of Clinical Judgment,” Journal of Social Issues 44 (1988), pp. 132-33.