Category Archives: Human Rights

Suspension and Expulsion: The Experience

Many students—not just autistic ones—believe that they have been unfairly suspended or expelled from school.  Many students—not just autistic ones—do not fully understand why they were suspended or expelled (sometimes it is hard for adults to figure that out either).  Suspensions are very often used as a punishment in U.S. schools not only for serious offences, but also for all kinds of minor infractions of the rules.  Crying in school may lead to unofficial suspensions, in which parents are told to pick up their children and take them home.  But students may be officially suspended for not meeting the school dress code (this includes even very young children, whose parents pick out their clothes), for having the “wrong” hairstyle, or even for carrying a backpack with the “wrong” picture on it.[1]  Most school codes of student conduct still include vague terms for misbehavior, such “insubordination” or “willful defiance,” which individual teachers can interpret subjectively.  In recent years, some major school districts have removed this language, but in many other places students can still be suspended for eye-rolling, walking away from a teacher without being dismissed, failing to complete homework, or even tapping their feet on the floor.[2]

Sometimes just needing to use the restroom at an inconvenient time for the teacher or other school staff member will be enough.  In December 2018, an 11-year-old autistic African-American child asked to use the bathroom in his elementary school.  The principal of the school, who was escorting him and another student back to their special education classroom, refused to let him go–even though access to the restroom at any time was the rule for Special Education students.  The child couldn’t get around the principal to reach the nearby bathroom, so he went out the back door of the school to find another restroom.  The principal then ordered school staff to lock all the doors and not let the student back in.  He wasn’t trying to run away—in fact, he spent 15 minutes circling the school, as teachers ignored his appeals for help, walking past him outside without speaking, and even pulling down the window blinds in his face.  Finally, another student took pity and opened a door for him.  The school sent his parents an incident report, but they failed to mention the dangerous and illegal lock-out—and the child received a two-day suspension for leaving the school building without permission.   Only after the school’s security tapes were reviewed did the true story come out.  The principal was then placed on paid administrative leave.[3]

 

Suspension and expulsion are over-used forms of discipline in American schools, for students of all neurotypes.  But autistic children face special challenges.  Sensory, emotional, or other stressors can drive them into meltdowns or shutdowns, during which their “fight or flight” instincts take control, sometimes leading to violent reactions. Meltdowns /shutdowns are clearly “manifestations” of autism, and so theoretically schools should respond to them with behavioral interventions.  Yet in practice, many autistic students face suspension, expulsion, and even arrest for what they do during these episodes. Students cannot control their own actions during meltdowns, so is it reasonable or fair for them to be punished in this way?

Moreover, many teachers don’t acknowledge their own role in triggering these problems.  In New Mexico, for example, a second-grader had a meltdown because his teacher yelled directly into his face, and then took away his Ipad, which was a very important comfort object for him.  She caused the meltdown, during which she was struck in the nose, causing a bruise.  Yet not only was the child—who happens to be black—suspended from school for having a meltdown, but his teacher actually pressed battery charges against an 8-year-old.[4]

In Florida, an autistic fourth-grader who had just gone through a long, stressful day of testing, was bothered by the noise when his teacher put on a movie (presumably as a reward for the other students.)  Seraph put on headphones and sat at a computer to distract himself from the noise, but he could still hear the movie.  So he started tapping computer keys loudly to drown it out.  That’s where the trouble began.  The teacher called in the dean, the assistant principal, and the school resource officer to remove him from his classroom.  He was willing to leave, but, looking for a quiet place to recover from the noise, he entered the school media room.  At this point, another teacher began reading a book to him—yet more noise.  Seraph, with his hands covering his ears, went over to the teacher and knocked at the book, using his elbow.  (The teacher was untouched).  The school resource officer then tackled him to the ground with so much force that Seraph ended up with carpet burns on his face.  He was suspended for several days—not because anyone was injured or even threatened, but simply because he was autistic and overstressed by noise.[5]

 

It is not unusual for autistic students to be get in trouble for leaving their classroom, or even their school without permission.  What is unusual is for schools to acknowledge what autistic students remember–that they often fled to avoid bullying:

I received three suspensions from my school during my time there, two for leaving the room to seek sanctuary in the library when the entire class (teachers included) united in mocking me, and one for deliberate non attendance over a period of days (truanting).[6]

Autistic students are disproportionately bullied at school.  And within a few years of being in school, they realize that the advice they are given—”speak to a member of the school staff”—is almost always ineffective.  School staff rarely stop the bullying.  They may fail to see what happened (and bullies are very adept at flying under the radar).  They may believe the bullies rather than the victim—because a highly verbal neurotypical bully can be more convincing than an autistic victim, or because there may be multiple bullies whose united testimony outweighs that of the victim.  (This is what happened to my own daughter.)  School staffers may simply not care.

one time a boy way bigger than me punched me in the face and made my nose bleed, and a teacher caught me inside trying to clean myself up, and I got yelled at for being inside during recess even though I was dripping with blood; nothing was done about the boy who hit me . . .[7]

People beat me up and they’d go free and I’d be in detention.[8]

Teachers may even dislike the autistic student and want him or her to suffer.  One autistic student listed reasons why she hated school:

Being bullied and being told it was my fault.

Being my teacher’s punching bag.[9]

 

The only solutions for these students are either to endure the suffering (the trauma this causes was described in an earlier post), to run away (and thus be suspended), or to retaliate—and retaliation often ends in their being suspended or expelled as well.  Here is “Aristophanes’s” description of his experience at school:

Attempting to avoid a fight, getting flat out sucker punched instead, and going to the principal who gave me as much detention as the aggressor, reasoning ‘you’re going to be an adult soon, you need to learn to solve your own problems, that’s the lesson here.’

Going back literally a week later, getting punched again, and retaliating by stomping my heel on the kid’s ankle, fracturing his tibia and earning me a suspension that go around.[10]

Other autistic students remember fighting with their bullies, and then being punished for it—while the bullies got off scot free:

Once [a privileged person] tried to stab me and he got off without a punishment simply because [his] family was rich.  I got a suspension and was threatened with expulsion because i kicked him in the stomach and dropped him to the ground.[11]

An increasing number of parents are filing lawsuits against school districts that allow things like this to happen.  For example, a Staten Island teenager was suspended for three days because he allegedly pushed to the ground bullies who had been physically assaulting him for years—including breaking his arm at one point.  His parents sued the school district, “claiming he was wrongfully punished for something his school should’ve done — and that’s stop his bullying.”[12]  A lawsuit pending in Cinncinnati, Ohio, charges a local school district with denying a student’s right to FAPE, both by refusing to recognize his disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations, and by failing to address the constant bullying he was subjected to.  The suit alleges that the school district suspended this young man multiple times, when he fought back or even just shouted at the students bullying him.  Even when he didn’t fight back, the school sometimes disciplined him.  In one of the incidents reported in the lawsuit, a bully spit on him, and called him names on the school bus.  It was the victim, not the bully, who was suspended for this incident.[13]

Perhaps the most significant problem with the use of suspension and expulsion as forms of discipline is that many autistic students hate school, and therefore prefer being removed from it.  This is the attitude of “Agent Smirnoff”:

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in suspension, as it granted me peace from the incessant bullying and allowed me to play on my computer all day.[14]

“deog” felt the same was about expulsion:

The highschool years are very difficult. . . . My misery and depression was profound. I got expelled by my sophmore year. i was ditching certain classes almost every single day…    I was so happy when I got expelled and I have no regrets about that because I was just done . . .[15]

It is fairly common for autistic and other students to misbehave on purpose in order to get some relief from their sufferings at school.  Sebastian, a student in New Mexico “relished being sent to in-school suspension, which he came to see as a haven from the stress of the classroom. Once, his mom says, he randomly punched a classmate in the parking lot in an effort to get sent back to the peace and quiet of in-school suspension.”[16]

When I was in grade school, I would purposely act up in order TO GET suspended. Sure my mom wouldn’t let me watch TV and stuff and would sometimes make me work on store bought workbooks, but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to be at school. Suspension was a reward to me. The school was starting to catch on that I was acting up on purpose and tried something called an “in school suspension”. I was in a classroom with a “babysitter” and with the exception of the “babysitter”, I was all alone. I was allowed to draw and color all day long. The classroom I was in was even quieter than my own house. I perfered quiet. Some punishment.[17]

 

The problem with students seeking out suspension and even expulsion for relief from stress is that they don’t realize the implications for their future.  Having a “record” is not helpful when applying to college or looking for a job, but many autistic students find school so painful that they don’t care.

Instead of suspending autistic students at such high rates, school districts should be looking for ways to make school more tolerable for them, ways to prevent them from having meltdowns, ways to seriously address the problem of bullying.

 

[1] Morgan Craven et al., “Suspended Childhood: An Analysis of Exclusionary Discipline of Texas’ Pre-K and Elementary School Students, Updated with 2015-16 Data,” for the Texas Appleseed organization, November, 2015; updated March, 2017: http://stories.texasappleseed.org/suspended-childhood-updated.

[2] Nina Agrawal, “California expands ban on ‘willful defiance’ suspensions in schools,” Los Angeles Times September 10, 2019:  https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-10/school-suspension-willful-defiance-california.

[3] Jessica Oh, “Child with autism locked out of school,” report on Kiro 7 television in Seattle, January 23, 2019:  https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/child-with-autism-locked-out-of-school/908564250/.  This incident was widely reported elsewhere.

[4] “Teacher files charges against 8-year-old student who hit her”, report on KQRE TV, April 14, 2018:  https://abc13.com/education/teacher-files-charges-against-8-year-old-student-who-hit-her/3344462/.  The incident was also widely reported.

[5] David M. Perry, “America Keeps Criminalizing Autistic Children,” Pacific Standard June 12, 2017:  https://psmag.com/education/america-keeps-criminalizing-autistic-children.

[6] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[7] dragoncat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 28, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.  It is worth noting that this topic elicited four pages of responses.

[8] tlc, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (March 30, 2018):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[9] SchrodingersMeerkat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 27, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[10] Aristophanes, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[11] The Musings of the Lost, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[12] Elizabeth Rosner and Chris Perez, “Autistic student suspended for standing up to bullies, $5M suit claims,” New York Post August 17, 2018:  https://nypost.com/2018/08/17/autistic-student-suspended-for-standing-up-to-bullies-5m-suit-claims/.

[13] Max Londberg, “Suit: Winton Woods Officials Allowed Bullying of Student with ‘Significant Autism’ for Years,” Cincinnati Enquirer August 19, 2019:  https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/08/19/suit-winton-woods-officials-allowed-bullying-student-autism/2054763001/.

[14] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[15] deog, in the “I’m So Done!!!! discussion on the Autism Forums website: https://www.autismforums.com/threads/im-so-done.27361/#post-552380.

[16] Ed Williams, “Criminalizing Disability,” Searchlight New Mexico, May 7, 2019:

[17] MagicMeerkat, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

Suspension and Expulsion: The Data

The reality of school discipline is more complicated than the law would suggest.  To begin with, students with disabilities, as a group, are much more likely to be suspended from school than students without disabilities.  A 2018 report, “School Climate and Safety Report” published by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that even though only 12% of all students in the U.S. have disabilities, 26% of those subject to out-of-school suspension and 24% of those expelled have disabilities.  In other words, students with disabilities are being suspended and expelled at roughly twice the rate of other students.[1]  Students of color, especially African Americans, face even higher rates of disciplinary removal from school.  Among students with identified disabilities, roughly 9% of whites and Hispanics were suspended in any given year, while 21% of Native Americans and 23% of black students were suspended.[2]

If we look specifically at autistic students, we should remember, first of all, that there are still many autistic students who have not been formally diagnosed. Unless they happen to have another, recognized, disability, they are not protected under IDEA and may be suspended or expelled because of behavior that would be considered a “manifestation” of autism in a diagnosed student.  Since girls and minority students are much less likely than white male students to be diagnosed with autism, they are also more likely to lack IDEA protections against excessive suspensions and expulsions.[3]

Relatively little research has focused on children with an actual autism diagnosis, but a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress states that pre-school children diagnosed with autism are ten times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their “typically developing” peers.[4]  A 2017 research study analyzes data for older children in the state of Maryland, from 2004 to 2015.  The authors found that about 3.3% of both white and African American students with autism were suspended during this period.  White autistic students were much more likely that non-disabled white students to be suspended, while autistic African American students were less likely to be suspended than non-disabled African American students.[5]

The fact that both groups of autistic students this study were suspended at the same rate suggests that both groups were treated equally.  But bear in mind that African Americans are much less likely than whites to be diagnosed with autism and may instead be diagnosed with intellectual or emotional disabilities.  In the same study, 10.5% of African American students with intellectual disability had been suspended at least once, compared to only 7.3% of white students with ID.  If we assume that at least some of those diagnosed with ID also have autism, or have been misdiagnosed with ID instead of autism, then it looks like the rate of suspension for African American students with autism probably is higher than it is for whites.[6]  The authors provided no data comparing students with autism and students with “emotional disturbance,” but African-American children with autism are very frequently misdiagnosed with ED, and students with ED are the most likely of all disability groups to be suspended or expelled.  It seems plausible, then, to assume that African Americans and members of other minority groups with autism are at higher risk of being removed from school than white students with autism.

There is also the question of how often autistic students are suspended.  Sometimes schools suspend children “unofficially,” by saying they are having a “bad day” and would be better off at home.  They call the parents to pick the child up, but do not register this event as a suspension.[7]  This allows the school to get around federal regulations that limit the number of suspensions that can be imposed on students with disabilities.  As a result, suspensions from school can occur with stunning frequency.  A report on television news in Washington state looked at statewide rates of suspension and expulsion for students with disabilities, with results similar to those described above.  The main focus of the report, a young autistic man named Austin, was suspended for more than 100 days during his time in middle school (far, far beyond the 10 days a year allowed under IDEA and federal regulations).  Another young autistic man in Washington state was officially suspended for 24 days, and unofficially for 45 days, for a total of 69 days out of the classroom during a single school year.[8]  While these are extreme cases, it is not at all unusual for schools to use unofficial removals to evade the limits set on suspensions by law.

Repeated removals from school obviously limit children’s educational opportunities, leading them to fall farther and farther behind other students academically.  But beyond that, repeated suspensions and expulsion from school have devastating emotional effects on children.  As Austin, the young man mentioned in the last paragraph, put it: “I felt like I was one of the worst kids that ever was because they were just constantly sending me home.” [9]  Disciplinary removal may alienate children from schools which they see as simply not wanting them.  And so, children repeatedly suspended and expelled are much more likely to drop out of school altogether.[10]  “As a teen, I was expelled from the entire county school system and my parents had to find a private school willing to take me.  At sixteen, I dropped out of school altogether,” recalls one autistic adult.[11]

Finally, repeated suspensions and expulsion promote entry into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” especially, but certainly not exclusively, for young African American males.[12] School “resource officers” (i.e., armed police officers) often intervene in disturbances at school, all too often in inappropriate ways.  They may end up handcuffing and even bringing to jail autistic students seen as “disruptive”—setting up a vicious cycle in which these students see authorities as the enemy and act out accordingly.  In addition, many suspended and expelled students spend their days unsupervised at home or on the streets, where they may engage in a variety of criminal activities, eventually leading to arrest and imprisonment.

As research has repeatedly shown, disciplinary removal from school has no positive impact at all on student behavior.  On the contrary, it is more likely to worsen that behavior.[13]  As a result, the official policy of many school districts is that suspension and expulsion should only be used when necessary to protect other students and staff, or when guns or drugs are involved.  In practice, however, these disciplinary techniques are often used to “punish” students who skip classes, fail to complete their homework, or talk back to their teachers.  As we’ll see in the next post, autistic students who receive these punishments often view them as senseless, and even malicious (a way for “mean teachers” to get back at them).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Office of Civil Rights, Department of Education, “School Climate and Safety,” 2018 report based on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection:  https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf.   The disparity begins in preschool:  Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.  See also [No author], “Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers,” report on King5 television news:  https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/washington-special-needs-students-disciplined-more-than-twice-as-often-as-general-education-peers/281-608161669.

[2] Nicholas Gage, et al., “National Analysis of the Disciplinary Exclusion of Black Students with and without Disabilities,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 28:7 (2019), 1754-64.

[3] Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Special Education:  A Multi-Year Disproportionality Analysis by State, Analysis Category, and Race/Ethnicity” (2016), pp. 23-24:  https://www2.ed.gov/programs/osepidea/618-data/LEA-racial-ethnic-disparities-tables/index.html.

[4] Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.

[5] M. Krezmien, et al., “Suspension Rates of Students with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities in Maryland from 2004 to 2015,” Journal of Intellectual Disability 61:11 (November, 2017), 1011-1020

[6] M. Krezmien, et al., “Suspension Rates of Students with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities in Maryland from 2004 to 2015,” Journal of Intellectual Disability 61:11 (November, 2017), 1011-1020.

[7] Robert Tudisco, “Can the School Give my Child With an IEP ‘Unofficial” Suspensions?’”, on the Understood.org website:  https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/can-the-school-give-my-child-with-an-iep-unofficial-suspensions; see also Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik, “Suspensions Are Not Support:  The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” (Report from the Center for American Progress, January17, 2018:  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/01/17/445041/suspensions-not-support/.

[8] Report from the Washington State ACLU, “Pushed out; kicked out: Stories from families with special education students in Washington”:  https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/pushed-out-kicked-out-stories-families-special-education-students-washington.

[9] [No author], “Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers,” report on King5 television news:  https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/washington-special-needs-students-disciplined-more-than-twice-as-often-as-general-education-peers/281-608161669.

[10] Amity Noltemeyer, Rose Marie Ward, and Caven Mcloughlin, “Relationship Between School Suspension and Student Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis,” School Psychology Review 44 (2015), 224-40; Susan Faircloth, “Factors Impacting the Graduation and Dropout Rates of American Indian Males with Disabilities,” in Susan Faircloth, Ivory Toldson, and Robert Lucio, eds., Decreasing Dropout Rates for Minority Male Youth with Disabilities from Culturally and Ethnically Diverse Backgrounds (Clemson, SC:  National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities, 2014), pp. 8-9.

[11] Max [formerly known as Sparrow Rose] Jones, No You Don’t:  Essays from an Unstrange Mind (Self-published, 2013), p. 51

[12] Abigail Novak, “The association between experiences of exclusionary discipline and justice system contact: A systematic review,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 40 (2018), 73-82; Amity L. Noltemeyer, Rose Marie Ward, and Caven Mcloughlin, “Relationship Between School  Suspension and Student Outcomes:  A Meta-Analysis,”  School Psychology Review  44: 2,  (June,  2015):  224-24; A.E. Cuellar and S. Markowitz, “School Suspension and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” International Review of Law and Economics 43 (2015), 98-106.

[13] Ambra Green, Deanna Maynard, and Sondra Stegenga, “Common misconceptions of suspension: Ideas and alternatives for school leaders,” Psychology in the Schools 55:4 (April, 2018), 419-28.

Removal from School for Disciplinary Reasons: The Law

My apologies for all the legal stuff that follows.  Understanding how suspension and expulsion can legally be imposed on autistic children requires understanding the complicated provisions concerning student discipline laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended in 1997 and 2004.

In the United States, under the current, amended form of IDEA, not only are children with autism and other disabilities entitled to FAPE (a free, appropriate, public education, in the least restrictive environment possible), but school actions that might deny them FAPE by removing them from the classroom are subject to legal limitations.[1]  The school must be very careful about removing a child temporarily (suspension) or permanently (expulsion), if the child’s behavior is a “manifestation” of her or his disability—that is, the behavior is caused either by the disability itself, or by the school’s failure to carry out the child’s IEP plan.  For example, if a child gets into trouble for not doing what the teacher says, and if it turns out that the child has an auditory processing disorder which makes it difficult or impossible to hear what the teacher is saying, and if the accommodations for auditory processing disorder written into her or his IEP have not been fully implemented, then the school cannot suspend or expel the child.

The school also cannot use removals from the classroom in ways that turns them into an unofficial “change of placement” to a more restrictive environment.[2]  If the school does want a change of placement, it is supposed to follow a formal review process, showing that the school has done all that it can to offer the student accommodations and teach him or her “better” behaviors, without success.  But because these actions present a major obstacle to their child receiving FAPE, parents who know their child’s rights can and do appeal school decisions through the state education system and possibly in court.

Schools use both in-school suspensions, in which a child is removed from the classroom but remains in the building, and out-of-school suspensions, in which a child is normally sent home, to punish unwanted behaviors.  According to federal regulations, a disabled child cannot be suspended in either setting for more than ten consecutive school days in response to a particular incident.  If the school wants to suspend a child for a longer period of time, it must provide appropriate educational and additional IEP services, at the school or at home, so that the child can continue to receive an education.  The school must also hold a “manifestation determination review” to decide whether the child’s unwanted behavior or behaviors is a “manifestation” of their disability. If they conclude that it is, additional efforts must be made to modify the child’s behavior.  The school is required to review his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP) to ensure that it is being fully implemented, possibly conduct a first or a new Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) to determine why the child is “misbehaving” in the first place, and then find ways to teach the student “better” behaviors, while keeping her or him in the classroom.[3] 

Even for students whose behavior is determined to be a “manifestation” of their disability, there are exceptions to the “ten day” rule.  Under certain circumstances—involving guns, drugs, or serious violence against another person—a student may be removed from the school for up to 45 days, as long as educational services continue to be provided in an “interim alternative educational setting.”[4]  The law does not specify what this term refers to—it simply says that the child should continue to receive educational services while in this setting.  Under some circumstances and in some places, children may be sent to special programs run by the school district, but located away from the school itself.  Under other circumstances, children may be sent to juvenile detention centers, residential treatment centers, or even psychiatric hospitals.  There are educational opportunities at these places, but they are—to say the least—extremely limited.

Even without guns or drugs or violence being involved, schools can legally suspend autistic students more than once a year, so long as educational services continue to be provided.  But if a school repeatedly suspends a child, as punishment for the same or similar behaviors, then it is moving into dangerous legal territory.  Repeated suspensions (even if each one is no more than ten days in length), create a “pattern” of administrative behavior that begins to look like an unstated change of placement (a denial of FAPE).  Federal regulations warn schools not to suspend a student with disabilities for the same or similar behaviors for more than 10 days over the course of a single school year, because this begins to look like a change of placement. [5]  If there are more than ten days of suspension during the year, the school district determines whether the suspensions constitute a change of placement, on a case-by-case basis– but parents have the right to appeal to the courts on the grounds that their child is not receiving FAPE.

If a school decides it wants to expel an autistic child, the IEP team must hold a manifestation determination review within 10 days after the decision is made.  If the child’s behavior is found to be a manifestation of autism, then the child cannot be expelled.  If the behavior is not found to be a manifestation of disability, parents have the right to call for a due process hearing, in which the IEP team’s decision will be reviewed by a hearing officer.  Depending on the state, there may be a one- or a two-tiered system—in the former, the case is heard by a state hearing officer, in the latter, the case is heard first by an officer from the school district, and then (if the parents decide to appeal) by a hearing officer from the state.  If the parents are still not satisfied, they can bring a civil law case against the school district.

This is the law as laid out in the amended text of IDEA and in federal regulations.  Disabled students’ rights to a free, appropriate, public education must be protected.  Unfortunately, though, far too many school districts do actually find ways of removing “troublesome” students without considering whether the “troublesome” behaviors are manifestations of the students’ disabilities, and without following the procedures required by law.  I will discuss some of these practices in my next post.


[1]  IDEA, part B, subpart E, sections 300.530-300.536: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/e.

[2]  IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.536

[3] IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.530.

[4] IDEA, part B, subpart E, section 300.530.

[5] Code of Federal Regulations, 2005.  Title 34:  Education.  Section 300.536, “Change of Placement Because of Disciplinary Removals.”  This regulation was added to the Code in 2005, to clarify the 2004 amendment of IDEA.

Meltdowns in School: Much Better Practices

It is perfectly possible to reduce both the frequency and violence of student meltdowns, which will, in turn, reduce the need for restraint and seclusion in schools.[1] However, this requires a change in attitude on the part of educators, towards seeing autistic children not as willfully naughty or manipulative, but as overwhelmed and frightened.  Teachers, aides and other educators also need to be willing to observe these children’s behavior carefully and make “meltdown plans” in advance.  Given the already heavy burden carried by educators today, this may seem like a lot to ask, but dealing effectively with meltdowns will certainly reduce educators’ stress in the long run.

The best practical advice for teachers on this subject that I have found comes from three books. Deborah Lipsky and Will Richards’ Managing Meltdowns:  Using the S.C.A.R.E.D. Calming Technique with Children and Adults with Autism focuses on interventions that can be used during a meltdown.  Deborah Lipsky’s From Anxiety to Meltdown:  How Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Deal with Anxiety, Experience Meltdowns, Manifest Tantrums, and How You Can Intervene Effectively, and Geoff Colvin and Martin Sheehan’s Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns also offer guidance on ways to prevent (or at least limit the number of) meltdowns in the first place.[2]  Lipsky is herself autistic, has experience working as and for first responders (EMTs, firefighters, police officers), and writes from the perspective of her own personal experiences and those of other autistic people she has worked with.  Her collaborator for the first book, Will Richards, is a clinical psychologist, with extensive experience treating autistic clients.  Colvin and Sheehan are professional educators who have spent decades working with autistic children in schools. Despite their very different backgrounds, their conclusions are remarkably similar. 

All these writers clearly distinguish meltdowns from temper tantrums.[3] And all of them describe melting down as a process, which can be interrupted by an observant and skilled teacher or first responder.  Colvin and Sheehan propose a six-phase model of the “meltdown cycle,” in which a student who had been in a state of calm is subject to one or more triggering events, which then lead to increasing agitation until the point of no return is reached and he or she melts down.  Once the meltdown has played itself out, there is a period of re-grouping during which the student is beginning to recover but may easily melt down again if pushed too hard.  Finally, the student becomes calm enough to start over, although with some lingering anxiety, uncertainty, and irritation.[4] Lipsky does not present her observations in quite the same way, but a careful reading of her book shows that she holds a very similar view of the meltdown as a process.[5] 

“Avoiding it in the first place is the most effective way of preventing a meltdown.”[6]  Both Lipsky and Colvin and Sheehan offer extensive advice on how to maintain a student with autism in the calm phase, which essentially comes down to using best practices for teachers of autistic students:  providing sensory diets as needed, using visual supports, having clear rules (systematically taught to the whole class), planning ahead, and adjusting the curriculum as needed.  The three authors also encourage teachers and aides to identify and limit as much as possible triggers that may disrupt a student’s calm participation in class—whether these are sensory issues, unexpected breaks in routine, or something else.[7]

Teachers must also learn how to recognize the signs of increasing agitation, and how to intervene to de-escalate the situation with reassurance, comfort, and support.  According to Colvin and Sheehan, agitation is “normally an observable manifestation that something is wrong with the student.”[8]  While some students move very quickly through the agitation phase to a full-blown meltdown, offering little time for intervention, much more often there is a period of agitation during which an observant teacher will notice increased stimming, wriggling, pacing and noise-making, or decreased interaction with others, including partial or total loss of the ability to communicate, non-compliance with directions, covering eyes or staring into space, hiding hands or even seeking isolation.[9]  Training teachers to recognize these signs can have a huge impact on the frequency and violence of meltdowns in their classrooms.  When an autistic student is becoming agitated, the teacher or classroom aide can step in to provide reassurance and empathy, offer opportunities for breaks or for movement to quiet spaces, and encourage self-management (if the student already has some skills in this area).  Reducing an autistic student’s agitation is the key to preventing meltdowns.  It is essential that school personnel not become agitated themselves during this phase, as this will simply increase the student’s agitation and make a meltdown more likely.[10] 

If a teacher misses or ignores the signs, the student’s agitation will continue to increase until they reach a “point of no return,” after which a meltdown is going to occur no matter what.[11]   And once the meltdown begins, it will need to run its course, which typically ends when the child is too exhausted to continue.  School personnel and school police officers must recognize that at this point the student cannot control her or his behavior, and neither can they.  Shouting commands at a frightened child in the middle of an instinctual fight-or-flight reaction can only make the situation worse. Instead, the school should already have decided on an action plan and included it in the student’s IEP.  (Obviously, if a child is having meltdowns in school, he or she should have an IEP).  Staff should be trained in advance in ways of providing support for the melting-down student, by limiting additional sensory input, remaining calm, staying nearby (but not too close), and saying encouraging things in a low-pitched, slow voice.[12]  According to Lipsky, the calm and sympathetic use of the student’s name during a meltdown can be especially helpful.[13]  Educators should know how to calmly and quietly guide the student to a safe place and the meltdown plan should always ensure that someone observes the child while he or she is there.  If there is an immediate threat of injury to the student or those nearby, strategies should be in place for using (and later reporting) safe forms of restraint as a last (not first) resort.  Under some circumstances it may be better to clear the classroom of other students, until the meltdown is over. [14]

When the meltdown is past, it is cruel and counterproductive to criticize the student—who is physically and emotionally exhausted, and probably already deeply embarrassed about/ashamed of what happened.[15]  It should be unnecessary to say that police involvement after the meltdown is ended can only be counterproductive.  Neither is it useful to interrogate the student about why the meltdown happened.  (Discussion of the meltdown can occur sometime later—perhaps even the following day.)  Autistic children are still emotionally labile during the “regrouping” phase and may escalate into a second meltdown if pushed too hard.  Rather, the teacher or an aide should continue to offer quiet support and can encourage the student to use a stim toy or pursue their special interest as a way of bringing them back from the fight for survival into the ordinary world.[16]

Eventually, the student will return to a non-agitated, relatively normal state during the “starting over” phase, and can return to the classroom (if they left it during the meltdown).  Nevertheless, they may still be feeling some anxiety, irritability, or uncertainty, and should not be pushed too quickly to engage in normal learning activities.  Concrete tasks, which the student has already shown he or she can perform, are the best activities for this period; engaging in such tasks can help the student gain confidence and eventually return to their original state of calm.[17]

Good teachers here and there throughout the United States have already learned how to manage meltdowns successfully, using these or similar techniques.  It is time for such techniques to become standard practice in all of our schools.  But it all starts with changing the attitudes of the adults involved towards the autistic students they serve.


[1] Grafton Integrated Health Care, a for-profit behavioral health organization, has claimed that its proprietary “Ukeru model” has reduced incidents of restraint by 99% and incidents of seclusion by 100% over the course of 14 years (2003-2016), in community as well as institutional settings.  They claim that staff injuries from restraint have declined by 100% in community settings, and 97% in institutions:  Jason Craig and Kimberly Sanders, “Evaluation of a Program Model for Minimizing Restraint and Seclusion,” Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2 (2018), 344-352.  The authors of this paper are affiliated with Grafton, and I have not been able to discover any corroborating analyses conducted by unaffiliated scientists. 

[2] Deborah Lipsky and Will Richards, Managing Meltdowns:  Using the S.C.A.R.E.D. Calming Technique with Children and Adults with Autism (London:  Jessica Kingsley, 2009); Deborah Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown: How Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Deal with Anxiety, Experience Meltdowns, Manifest Tantrums, and How You Can Intervene Effectively (London:  Jessica Kingsley, 2011) and Geoff Colvin and Martin Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin, 2012).  Another excellent book on this subject is Judy Endow’s Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Publishing Company, 2009).

[3] Lipsky and Richards, Managing Meltdowns, section entitled “Are Meltdowns and Temper Tantrums the Same Thing?” (I am using the Kindle edition of the book, which has no page numbers); Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, p. 108, 135-42, and especially 149-52 (on determining whether behavior is a tantrum or a meltdown).  Incidentally, Lipsky also offers some very useful suggestions for dealing with tantrums, even though her main focus is on meltdowns:  see pp. 142-49Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 22-25.

[4] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle, pp. 29-30.

[5] Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, see especially, p. 127.  Judy Endow has a similar model: Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Publishing Company, 2009), pp. 11-46.

[6]    Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, p. 229.

[7] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 63-108; discussion of potential triggers is a particular strength of Lipsky’s book, From Anxiety to Meltdown, pp. 161-214.

[8] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, p. 39.

[9] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 40-43; Lipsky and Richards, Managing Meltdowns, section on “What Are Some of the Warning Signs of a Potential Meltdown?”

[10] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 109-22.

[11] The phrase “point of no return” is used by Judy Endow, Outsmarting Explosive Behavior, pp. 35-40.  She uses it to emphasize that once a child has reached this point they are no longer in control of their behavior; making a meltdown inevitable.

[12] Lipsky and Richards, Managing Meltdowns; Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdowns, pp. 216-22; Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 135-36

[13] Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, p. 221.

[14] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, p. 123-41; compare Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, p. 221.

[15] Lipsky, From Anxiety to Meltdown, pp. 110, 126, 141.

[16] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 142-53.

[17] Colvin and Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns, pp. 49-51, 154-68.

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.

 

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)

Henny Kupferstein’s Research Study

Henny K. is a doctoral student working on sensory integration.  She also offers piano lessons via Skype to students on the spectrum (both speaking and non-speaking, including those with dyspraxia).  Henny  is currently conducting a research study on childhood behavioral interventions, from the point of view of both autistic adults and caregivers.  To participate, go to this site:

https://hennyk.com/2016/07/16/research-study-on-autism-childhood-interventions-online-survey/

I think the results should be extremely interesting.

 

 

Back Again

I’ve been silent for a few months–the result of a cancer scare (thank goodness, it turned out to be benign), dear husband’s pneumonia, and various crises among the teens.

At some point I’ll get back to the posts I was doing about the nature of autism (when this turns into a book, those will be part of the introduction).  For now, though, I’m going to start writing about autistic people’s right to an education–specifically, here in the United States, a “free, appropriate, public education” (FAPE).  (There will be a separate chapter in the book on educational rights.)

I would be EXTREMELY grateful to any autistic adults/adults with autism who would be willing to share with me their educational experiences over the last few decades and their thoughts about education today.  When you were in school, were you taught academic material, or merely life skills?  How effectively were you taught?  How were you treated in school–by administrators, teachers, and fellow students?  How do you think children on the autism spectrum can best be taught?