Category Archives: Myths about Autism

The Morality of Fighting Back Against Bullies

Some autistic adults openly admit that they were aggressive as children, and even describe the behaviors they used to engage in at school—kicking, biting, punching, etc.—in their postings on social media.[1]  However, these adults view their past behavior very differently than the (normally neurotypical) researchers who study aggression in autistic schoolchildren.  Researchers have identified a number of risk factors for aggressive behavior:  sensory sensitivities, hyperactivity, irritability and sleep deprivation, poor communication, mood issues, etc.[2]  In most cases, however, autistic adults writing about their own childhood behaviors ignore such factors, and instead identify situational cues for aggression.  They generally remember acting aggressively either when they were taken by surprise (being touched or approached without warning),[3] or—much more frequently—when they were being bullied.

Within the general school population, bullying often causes or contributes to “externalizing behaviors” (negative actions directed towards others) as well as internalizing problems.[4]  Since school bullying has a disproportionate effect on autistic children, it is hardly surprising that externalizing reactions are fairly common within this group.  However, because their victimization so often goes unnoticed, it is difficult to determine whether autistic kids are any more likely than neurotypical kids to respond aggressively when bullied.  What is striking is how often the morality of aggression is debated within the autistic community. Bullying is one of the most frequent topics of discussion for autistic adults on social media, and often these discussions turn into debates over whether fighting back against bullies is morally justifiable.[5]

 

On the one hand, there are those who consider fighting for any reason morally wrong, and who report having refused to fight back against bullies as children:

My sense of morality has always been strong. Even as a 6 year-old, I found it hard to misbehave like the other kids in the classroom because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be “bad” on purpose. I also never hit back kids who hit me since it never occurred to me to hurt anyone. The fact that people hurt each other for pleasure has always been a concept I never understood.[6]

I’m a pacifist. I know this is a very extreme view, but no matter how much someone hurt me I would not view it as being right to fight back, (at least not physically). I have been hit and not hit back.[7]

 

In keeping with this viewpoint, some autistic adults recall being aggressive when they were young, and then emphasize how they have matured since then:

I have anger issues though they have improved over the years. When I was in primary school, not only I got angry easily, I was also very violent. I punched someone in the stomach (I still think she REALLY deserved that), I pushed three of my classmates, kicked two and I attacked a 5th grader in 2nd grade. Fortunately I’m not violent anymore. I sometimes become angrier than I’ve ever been in preschool but I’ve never resolved to violence these past few years.[8]

The implication of posts like this is that fighting back is wrong and should be avoided.  Unfortunately, though, if bullying continues after children grow and learn to control themselves, the anger that is no longer turned against others may be turned inward.

I used to [be aggressive] definatly, when I was young (up until the age of 7) I used to bite people when they annoyed me.  Now I am way more likely to hurt myself than anyone else.  I still get angry a lot but it is more just frustration at myself. [9]

Growing maturity and self-control may have prevented violence against others, but they have also led to depression and self-harm (“I am way more likely to hurt myself than anyone else”).

 

On the other hand, there are autistic adults who consider hitting back an appropriate response to bullying.  They may remember choosing violence as the only option available to them, after their schools failed to stop other children from bullying them:

I think part of the reason I hit other kids was because I felt they weren’t respecting me. Sometimes they would ignore what I was trying to say, and I got mad and wanted their attention, so I hit them. It also might’ve been because I wanted to get even with the kids who picked on me, and hurting them seemed like the only way to do that; whenever I told an adult, they usually said something like “I’ll keep an eye on him.” and wouldn’t actually do anything. Sometimes they would take action, but it was rare for that to happen.[10]

They may recall with pleasure that the bullying stopped after they retaliated: “I’ve hit bullies out of anger.  Oddly enough, getting the crap beaten out of them made them not want to bully me anymore.  Shocking![11]  They may defend and even extol violence as the only practical solution to the problems faced in school:

In elementary school, I was bullied pretty horrifically by a couple people at whichever school I was attending, from pretty creative insulting/verbal abuse, to outright attempts at fighting me. I just reacted as violently as I felt was appropriate, and sometimes I got in a lot of trouble. When I look back on it, I think I did the right thing, because by the time high school rolled around, I didn’t really catch any flack from anyone, except for one guy who called me a “fag” but is now a gay porn star. Irony at it’s best. I say, this is how you deal with bullies: beat the ever-loving **** out of them. If they get the better of you, spit blood in their eyes, and while they can’t see, go for the nose. That works as a metaphor for life, as well.[12]

 

Assuming that autistic adults correctly remember their childhood reactions, it would seem, then, that many did not automatically react violently to bullying.  Many simply “took” the abuse, either out of a keen sense of morality or perhaps because they were unable to react fast enough.  Others chose to fight back.  The saddest cases, however, are those who remained non-violent until the cumulative impact of the abuse completely overwhelmed them, and they “snapped.”  This last group will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

[1] Other autistic adults report that they refused to act aggressively in school—see the statements cited below.

[2] “Aggression Against Self and Others.”

[3] See earlier post on “Reactive Aggression.”

[4] For a recent summary of research on this issue, see A. Reijntjes, et al., “Prospective Linkages between Peer Victimization and Externalizing Problems in Childhood:  A Meta-Analysis,” Aggressive Behavior 37 (2011), 215-22.

[5] See, among many possible examples, the following discussions on the Wrong Planet website:

“Why Not Fight Back?” http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=6907&start=15

“Why Are So Many With AS So Passive And Unwilling To Fight Back?”  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=53145

“When And How Should I Fight Back?”  http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=344927.

[6] nirrti_rachelle, in the “Autism and Morality” discussion: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=260199.

[7] sarahstilletos, in the “Why Are So Many With AS So Passive And Unwilling To Fight Back?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=53145.

[8] Mushroom, in the “Anybody Here Have Serious Anger Issues?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=33451.

[9] Grim, in the “Anybody Here Have Serious Anger Issues?” discussion: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=33451.

[10] coalminer, in the “the Did You Struggle in Elementary School More Than in Later Years?” discussion on WrongPlanet:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=357368.

[11] pat2rome, in the “Bullying Survey:  Most Teens Have Hit Someone Out of An[ger]” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: http://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=141399&p=3156818

[12] JCPHN, in the “Bullying” discussion on the AspiesCentral website:  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/bullying.5414/page-4.

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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.

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)

Making Noise

The “disruptive” behaviors of autistic students, commonly adduced in arguments against inclusive education, actually fall into several different categories.  There are the “noisy” behaviors, the “movement” behaviors, and then—much more problematic and harder to defend—the “injurious” behaviors.  I would like to address each in turn.  First:  the “noisy” behaviors.

 

I have what’s called “cough-variant” asthma—instead of wheezing when I have an asthma attack, I cough.  I’ve had this all my life, but when I was a child it went un-diagnosed and untreated, and I lived with two  chain-smoking parents.  As a result, I did a LOT of coughing.  Sometimes it was just intermittent mild barking, but when I got sick—as I did at least three or four times a year–it became an almost constant, deep-chested, disgustingly gooey, hacking that usually went on for several weeks.  At these times, I coughed all day at school, seldom stopping except to gasp for breath.  Once, in middle school, Suzie H. indignantly informed me that my coughing had made her fail a test.   And in retrospect, I suspect that my coughing distracted and annoyed other students on a regular basis.  But no one ever complained to the teacher or the school administration about it, no teacher ever even mentioned it to me, and I never got in trouble for all the noise I was making.  Presumably, if they thought about it at all, they assumed, correctly, that it was beyond my control.

 

Students with autism who make noise in the classroom seldom enjoy the same tolerance.  A significant proportion of autistic children engage in regular vocalizations—making random sounds, or repeating words or phrases to themselves—often without even thinking about it.  It’s just something they do.  Others “stim” by tapping on their desks with pencils or their fingers—again, without even thinking about it.   These activities are usually beyond their control, just as my coughing was.  Yet unlike my coughing, this autistic noise-making tends to be seen as extremely problematic, as “disruptive” to the classroom.  Other students, teachers, and administrators get angry, assuming that the autistic kids are doing it “on purpose,” and could “stop if they wanted to.”  In reality, however, the kids don’t usually realize that they are making noise.  If confronted, they either stop for a while and then unconsciously start up again, or they become agitated and do whatever they have been told to stop doing even more.  And then the presumption becomes that they are “defiant.”

 

The fact is, however, that classrooms are almost never quiet, peaceful places in which everyone listens attentively to the teacher.  Classes are constantly being disrupted by noises outside the school (construction, garbage trucks, sirens, kids laughing and yelling on the playground, etc.),  within the school (squeaky shoes in the hallway, announcements on the public address system, fire alarms, etc.), and within the classroom itself (class pets squeaking and rustling, kids dropping books, coughing, sneezing, and whispering to each other).  If the noises made by autistic students could be accepted as just one among a number of similar distractions, if the noise could be explained to the other students in those terms, and then compensated for by strategic seating, the use of padded cubicles, and the substitution of other forms of self-soothing for autistic students whenever possible, then one of the main obstacles to inclusion could be overcome.  But this would require both teachers and students to look at these behaviors in a different and more tolerant way.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

The Education of Autistic Children, 1950-1975

This post will focus on the education of autistic children in the period between 1950 (shortly after Leo Kanner’s original articles on autism were published) and 1975, the year in which the groundbreaking Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed.

 

This is a complicated topic to unpack, because the vast majority of adults considered autistic today did not have that label when they were children, back in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Most adults now diagnosed with “high functioning autism” or with “Aspergers Syndrome,”[1] would never have been considered autistic in childhood because they did not meet Kanner’s strict diagnostic criteria (the only criteria then recognized in the United States).  They might have been considered “weird” or “eccentric” by those around them, but they usually had no formal diagnosis.  (An exception was Temple Grandin, famous today for her work in animal science and her advocacy on behalf of people with autism.  Her diagnosis in childhood was “brain-damaged”—only much later was it recognized that she was autistic. [2])  On the other hand, most adults who are today described as “low-functioning” autistics were incorrectly diagnosed in childhood as either psychotic, or intellectually disabled (“mentally retarded” in the language of the period), or both.  Only a tiny number of children who happened to come to the attention of the small number of researchers interested in the subject, and who met Kanner’s criteria, were ever actually diagnosed as “autistic.”  What this means is that we will need to distinguish in what follows between the ways in which these three groups—those who could pass as more or less “normal,” those who were considered either mentally retarded or mentally ill, and the tiny number actually diagnosed as “autistic”—were educated in the past.

 

Before 1975, most undiagnosed “high-functioning” autistics attended the same schools as their siblings, and usually without any support services, unless they had additional disabilities, or unless some thoughtful teacher came to their assistance.  A few of them flourished.  Others report that they struggled painfully through the system, wrestling with learning problems that neither they nor their teachers understood.  Stephen Shore, who now has a Ph.D. in Special Education and holds a faculty position at Adelphi University, remembers that in public school he was usually behind the other children in math and reading.  Indeed, Shore’s first grade teacher told his parents that he would never be able to do math.  (In college, however, he successfully completed calculus and statistics, and earned a degree in accounting).[3]  It is surprising, in fact, how many autistic adults report struggling with math in childhood, given the widespread assumption today that autistics are somehow more attuned to math than to studies that require sophisticated use of language.  Dawn Prince-Hughes (who later earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology, became an expert in primate behavior, and wrote a number of books on that subject) recalls the horrible year in third grade when she both developed severe asthma and encountered a particularly unsympathetic teacher.  This teacher punished her for her unexplained failings in math by refusing to let her engage in the reading and writing assignments at which she excelled.  The teacher also announced to the entire third-grade class Prince’s failing math grades, as well as the fact that she was being tested for mental retardation.[4]

In addition to their academic struggles, these undiagnosed children almost always suffered from horrendous bullying from both teachers and classmates.[5]   Real and threatened beatings, tripping, pushing, being shut in lockers, suffering “swirlies” in the toilet and other forms of humiliation, and every kind of insult were commonplace.[6]  For some, this was simply the way things were:  “It never occurred to me at that time to talk to my parents about the problem of bullying in school and the teachers never told them either.  I accepted it as a fact of life.”[7]  Others were driven to retaliate.  After years in elite private schools for girls, Temple Grandin finally got tired of being called names.  When one of her seventh-grade classmates called out, “Retard!  You’re nothing but a retard!”, Grandin threw a book at her, hitting her in the face.  She was expelled from the school as a result.[8]  A few of the children became bullies themselves. [9]  Still others, like John Elder Robison, simply found it too difficult to cope with the sensory and social stresses of school, and dropped or failed out.[10]

 

But what about the other two groups, the tiny few with an actual autism diagnosis, and the much larger number considered mentally retarded or psychotic?  Before 1975, these children seldom received much schooling at all.  Some parents attempted to place their diagnosed child in the public schools, but the experiment seldom lasted more than a few months before the child was either withdrawn or expelled.[11]   A few well-informed or well-connected families managed to get their child into one of a handful of educational establishments designed specifically for the “severely damaged” or “profoundly disabled.”[12]  These establishments tended to focus on teaching functional living skills (toileting, dressing, speaking), but they sometimes offered the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic for the children who who it was believed could manage those subjects.[14]  Charles Martel Hale, Jr., for example, who was non-verbal and labelled at the time “severely to profoundly mentally retarded,” attended an apparently high quality programs in Queens, New York in the early to mid 1970s. He was taught some living skills, but no academics.  However, long before he finally learned to communicate on the computer and typewriter in the 1990s, he had already taught himself to add, subtract and multiply by listening to conversations and television programs.[13]

However, most “autistic,” “psychotic” or “mentally retarded” children were—on the advice of doctors and other professionals—swiftly shunted into psychiatric institutions or homes for the “feeble-minded,” and left to fend for themselves.[15]  Tom McKean, who had attended general education classrooms in his neighborhood school from kindergarten through third grade, before being transferred to classes for the Learning Disabled, was finally diagnosed as autistic in seventh grade and promptly transferred to a psychiatric institution.[16]  Many of the institutions in which these children were confined called themselves “schools,” but few offered much in the way of an education.  They might provide various forms of vocational training, so that residents could help “earn their keep.”  Most, though, were simply warehouses, where autistic children (along with many others) lived in ignorance and squalor, exposed to hunger, cold, and disease, and subject to abuse by older children and adult inmates and staff.[18]

 

 

[1] The labels “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” although very widely used today, bear very little relationship to reality and should probably be avoided—although that is the subject for another post.  The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychological Association no longer recognizes Aspergers Syndrome as a diagnostic category.  However, the phrase is still common in everyday usage.

[2] Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, “The Autistic Brain:  The origins of the diagnosis of autism—and the parental guilt-tripping that went along with it,” Slate Magazine (May, 2013):

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2013/05/temple_grandin_s_the_autistic_brain_an_excerpt_on_the_history_of_the_autism.htm.

[3] Stephen Shore, Beyond the Wall:  Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2002;  2nd ed. 2003), p. 53.

[4] Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:  My Journey through Autism (New York:  Random House, 2004), pp. 41-44.   Liane Holliday Willey also reports that she “hated and was terrible in math:”  Pretending to Be Normal:  Living with Aspergers Syndrome (London:  Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999; expanded ed., 2014), p. 47.

[5] Sparrow Rose Jones, “Autistic Pride Day 2015—Letter to Myself as a Child,” on the Unstrange Mind blog:  https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/autistic-pride-day-2015-letter-to-myself-as-a-child/ .

[6] There will be more on this topic in another post.

[7] Stephen Shore, Beyond the Wall:  Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing Co., 2002;  2nd ed. 2003), p. 56.

[8] Temple Grandin, with Margaret Scariano, Emergence:  Labeled Autistic  (Novato, CA:  Arena Press, 1986; reissued with additional material:  New York:  Grand Central Press, 2005), pg. 68.

[9] Cynthia Kim, Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate:  A User Guide to an Asperger Life (London and Philadelphia:  Jessica Kingsley, 2015), pp. 12-17.

[10] John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye:  My Life with Aspergers (New York:  Broadway Books, 2007), pp. 85-94.

[11] On the exclusion from school of children with an autism diagnosis before 1975, see 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. 53.  For an example of a diagnosed child who spent a short while in the public schools, see Jules Bemporad, “Adults Recollections of a Formerly Autistic Child,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 9 (1979), p. 184.  Incidentally, the word “formerly” in the article title does not refer to any form of “recovery” from autism.  Instead, the child whose life is recounted has turned into an adult and Bemporad seems unwilling to describe an adult as “autistic.”

[12] E.g., Rud Turnbull, III, The Exceptional Life of Jay Turnbull:  Disability and Dignity in America, 1967-2009 (Amherst, MA:  White Poppy Press, 2011), Chapter 2.

[13] Charles Martel Hale, Jr., “I Had No Means to Shout” (Bloomington, IN:  1stBooks Library, 1999.

[14] The individual interviewed by Jules Bemporad (note 11 above), learned to multiply in such a school—this skill later provided him with great satisfaction. But his school was exceptional.

[15] Wendlyn Alter, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby:  An Interview with Jerry Alter,” Chalice (April-May, 2014), pp. 11-15, describes how her brother Jerry was hospitalized at the age of 5.

[16] Thomas McKean, Soon Will Come the Light:  A View from Inside the Autism Puzzle (Arlington, TX:  Future Horizons, 1994; 2nd ed. 2001), pp. 3-5.

[18] More on these institutions in a later post.

Joy and Autism 1

 

The most widely disseminated public narratives about autism outline the “tragedy” of the condition—the despair and misery it supposedly creates, especially among the parents of children with autism.  These narratives were brought to special prominence in the controversy surrounding Autism Speaks’s notorious 2009 ad campaign “I Am Autism,” but they are also extremely common in the titles of books and articles, as well as in everyday conversation.  The fact is, however, that many parents of autistic children find their family life far from “tragic.”  And more importantly, many autistic people describe their own lives in very positive terms, while still acknowledging the difficulties they face.

I wanted to start this series of posts on autism and emotion with a discussion of joy, because—although the word seldom appears in media accounts of autism, and although the emotion itself has seldom been studied by researchers on autism—autistic people themselves often write about joy, about the delight and deep pleasure they find in their special interests, in the sensory world around them, and especially in the practice of “stimming.”

Here is the incomparable Julia Bascom, in a blog post that has circulated widely within the neurodiversity community, entitled “The Obsessive Joy of Autism”:

One of the things about autism is that a lot of things can make you terribly unhappy while barely affecting others. A lot of things are harder.

But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions. . . .

It’s that the experience is so rich. It’s textured, vibrant, and layered. It exudes joy. It is a hug machine for my brain. It makes my heart pump faster and my mouth twitch back into a smile every few minutes. I feel like I’m sparkling. Every inch of me is totally engaged in and powered up by the obsession. Things are clear.

It is beautiful. It is perfect.

I flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle. I make funny little sounds. I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happy, so enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.

If I could change three things about how the world sees autism, they would be these. That the world would see that we feel joy—sometimes a joy so intense and private and all-encompassing that it eclipses anything the world might feel. That the world would stop punishing us for our joy, stop grabbing flapping hands and eliminating interests that are not “age-appropriate”, stop shaming and gas-lighting us into believing that we are never, and can never be, happy. And that our joy would be valued in and of itself, seen as a necessary and beautiful part of our disability, pursued, and shared.[1]

The very intensity of the autistic experience—the heightened sensory experience, the deep focus on special interests, the broad awareness of multiple stimuli—can cause considerable distress when beyond the individual’s control, but it can also give rise to astonishing experiences of beauty, delight, sensual pleasure, and joy when the individual can make use of that experience for her or his own ends.

Such moments of delight are achieved primarily through what scientists often describe dismissively as “stereotypic” or “repetitive” behaviors—hand flapping, rocking, spinning, bouncing, etc.  For many years, autism therapists tried to eliminate these behaviors, in an attempt to “normalize” autistic people.  The mantra “quiet hands” was regularly chanted in special education classrooms.  More recently, scientists and autism professionals have begun to recognize the importance of “self-stimulatory behaviors” (another scientific term for these actions) as a calming response to stressful situations.  It has therefore become less common for therapists to try to eliminate them completely, although it is still usually recommended that they encourage their clients to self-soothe in more “socially acceptable” ways (by playing with fidget toys, sitting in special chairs, etc.), rather than by the means of their own choosing.  However, I have never seen a scientist, teacher, or therapist recognize the importance of self-stimulation as a source of positive, indeed deeply positive, emotional experience.

The value of “stimming” is, however, a frequent theme of autistic writing (which scientists and other professionals who wish to understand autistic experience would do well to consult).[2]   Rocking, hand-flapping, and spinning are not only responses to distress, but also, and much more importantly, forms of play.  They provide intense satisfaction, mental stimulation, and sensory delight to autistic adults as well as children:

“When I flap I get a feeling of overwhelming joy and creative thoughts and images come from no where. My brain functioning becomes super fast and I can create perfect images or beautiful sentences in my mind.”[3] 

“I have difficulty regulating many of my body functions such as heat and cold or being overwhelmed by too much motion, light, sounds, etc. but I have access to a deep, deep, deep joy by manipulating movement, light, sounds, etc. on my own.[4]

“In the past year I have rediscovered the joy of stimming. I have unearthed a playfulness within me that I thought was lost.”[5]    

This “obsessive joy” is a wonderfully positive thing—that should be encouraged in autistic children and celebrated in autistic adults.  It can, however, also have an addictive quality, which I will discuss in my next post.

 

 

 

[1] Julia Bascom, “The Obsessive Joy of Autism,” Just Stimming blog (https://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/the-obsessive-joy-of-autism/

[2] http://what-is-stimming.org/links/

[3] October 7, 2010 comment by “NothingsWrongWithMe” on “Understanding Hand-Flapping and What to Do (Or Not Do) About It,” on the Aspiring Dad blog (https://aspiringdad.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/understanding-hand-flapping-and-what-to-do-or-not-do-about-it/)

[4] “I is for Identity-first Language” April 10, 2015, on the Unstrange Mind blog (https://unstrangemind.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/i-is-for-identity-first-language/)

[5] “At the Intersection of Gender and Autism—Part 3” December 4, 2014, Musings of an Aspie blog (https://musingsofanaspie.com/tag/girlhood/)

 

Dear Neurotypicals: What if you use your words? — Yes, That Too

 

WOW!

 

If we don’t use our words, we won’t be indistinguishable. (What’s wrong with saying, “use your words”? Many, many things, including the part where it’s ignoring communication that you actually did understand because you didn’t like how it was phrased. Thanks, Neurodivergent K.)But it’s not just about words, is it? Once we’re using words, you want…

via Dear Neurotypicals: What if you use your words? — Yes, That Too