Tag Archives: School Discipline

Diagnosis and Discipline

For a student with autism, diagnosis is always a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, an official diagnosis may result in access to services such as ABA (for good or ill), speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.; and for accommodations at school such as classroom aides, extended time on tests, access to quiet rooms, etc.  It offers some legal protections against suspension or expulsion from school.  At the same time, autism obviously carries a profound stigma in American society.  In school, the child who has an autism diagnosis is often regarded by administrators, teachers and staff as different and potentially dangerous.  Non-verbal autistics are usually assigned to special education classrooms, or even separate schools, where they usually receive only a limited academic education, regardless of their actual intelligence and potential.  And despite privacy rules, autistic children’s diagnoses far too often become known to their fellow students, resulting in bullying.

Many parents are aware of these problems, and struggle with deciding what is best for their child, or sometimes what is best for the parents themselves, or for the rest of the child’s family.  Should they seek a diagnosis or not?  And if they do receive a diagnosis from a doctor or psychologist, should they share it with the school?  Does their child’s need for services, accommodations, and protection outweigh the potential impact of stigma?  But parental anxiety about stigma is only one of many factors affecting whether a child is diagnosed.  Sex, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, immigrant status, language and cultural differences, and even the place where a child lives, all play a role in determining who will be diagnosed and who will not.

“Four times as many boys as girls have autism.”  This has been repeated so often that it may be treated as a simple fact.[1]  But the correct formulation should actually be that “four times as many boys as girls receive autism diagnoses.”  We simply don’t know how many girls have autism.  What we do know now, though, is that many girls on the spectrum remain undiagnosed because parents, psychologists and pediatricians don’t know what autism looks like in girls.[2]   For example: parents and care-givers are more likely to become concerned and more likely to seek a professional diagnosis when children engage in “externalizing” (aggressive) behaviors.  But because girls are less likely than boys to behave aggressively, parents may not realize the extent to which they are “different” from other children, and as a result, their daughters may not be tested for autism until they reach school age or even beyond.[3]  In addition, most parents and professionals still don’t realize that autistic girls are better at “camouflaging” or “passing” than autistic boys, because they are likely to imitate the behavior of those around them (even if they don’t understand the reasons for that behavior), whereas boys are more likely to simply withdraw from social interactions altogether.[4] The standard diagnostic criteria for autism present additional problems.[5]  Engagement in repetitive behaviors has long been a key criterion.  But autistic girls are less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors than boys—and even when they do, these behaviors may appear at first glance to be normal for young females.  Autistic girls may collect dolls or devote lots of time to coloring pictures.  What parents and the professional responsible for diagnosis often don’t realize is that these girls are not playing with the dolls, but rather lining them up according to the color of their dresses; they are filling their coloring books with intricate patterns that have little to do with what’s going on in the pictures.[6]  As a result of these and other factors, girls are generally diagnosed at a later age than boys, and may remain undiagnosed into adulthood, even when they are quite severely affected by autism.”[7]

Coming from a poor family also makes it less likely that an autistic child will receive a diagnosis.  As one study found:  “ . . . the proportion of children in poverty receiving services or supplementary income because of ASD was lower than the proportion expected on the basis of estimates of the prevalence of ASD in the general population.”[8]  While autism diagnoses have increased rapidly in recent years, the increase has been much lower for the poor than for other income groups.[9]  This is almost certainly because access to health care (and therefore medical sources of diagnosis) is much more limited for the poor in the United States, than for the middle and upper class.  In countries with universal health care, such as Sweden and France, such differences do not exist.[10]

Children of color are less likely than white kids to be diagnosed with autism.  They are also more likely than white kids to be diagnosed late (after they have started school), or simply mis-diagnosed as having emotional or behavioral problems. The time from when parents become concerned to when the child receives an official diagnosis (if they ever do) is significantly longer for children of color than for whites.  Even when socio-economic status and levels of parental education are factored in, these disparities remain.  Among children of color, those most likely to be diagnosed are those with lower (or apparently lower) IQs, while those with the “milder phenotype” of autism (what used to be called Aspergers syndrome) remain under-identified. Fewer children of color receive early intervention services (such as ABA or TEACCH) for autism, and when they do receive services, it is generally for fewer hours a week. Once they reach school age, they are more likely than white kids to be identified as having “behavior problems” and are over-represented in school services targeting behavior (as opposed to social skills or learning techniques). [11]  High levels of poverty in these communities, as well as prejudice, contribute to these disparities.  Racial disparities in diagnosis and services affect all non-white children, but some groups—especially Hispanics and African-Americans—are more seriously affected than others.

Immigrant families may be poor and they may belong to racial or ethnic minorities, but they also face problems in receiving accurate diagnoses for their children simply because they are immigrants.  Language differences can be a significant barrier, because so many of the diagnostic tools for autism are based on instruments originally written in English, and perhaps unavailable in, or poorly translated into, other languages.  (Some immigrants may also be unable to read or write.)  Lack of familiarity with American medical and educational systems may play a role, as do those systems lack of familiarity with other cultures.  For example:  many American practitioners view a child who is unwilling to make eye contact with them as potentially autistic.  However, in many immigrant communities, children are taught that it is rude to look directly into an adult’s eyes.  Some of the testing used to detect autism looks at children’s interactions with toys—but immigrant children may have never seen the toys presented to them, and may have no idea how to play with them “appropriately.”[12]  It is also possible that cultural differences may shape an immigrant family’s decision to seek a diagnosis. One study found that Korean-American families in New York City were often reluctant to seek diagnosis (or even discuss autism with others), because of the shame having a disabled child might bring on their family.[13]  This, and other similar studies, must be treated with caution, however, because they tend to be based on interviews with a very small sample of people, who may not be representative of the group as a whole.  However, it is certainly possible that cultural differences play a role in immigrant families’ decision to seek a diagnosis.

Finally, there is the question of whether families who want a diagnosis and who have enough resources to get one can find someone to provide it.  Other things (wealth, English language competency, etc.) being equal, it is not very difficult to find a doctor or psychologist able to diagnose autism in most of America’s big cities.  However, one recent, if somewhat controversial, study, has identified a multitude of “diagnosis deserts,” especially in rural or thinly populated parts of the United States.  80% of U.S. counties have no autism diagnostic clinics.[14]  Families from these areas have to either travel long distances to find a qualified diagnostician, or wait until their children are old enough to receive diagnoses and services from local school systems.

Disparities in the ability to get an autism diagnosis are significant, and they have significant implications as well.  In my next post I will concentrate on just one issue—the impact of having/not having an autism diagnosis on school discipline.

[1] E.g., “What is Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention website (current):  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html;  Deane Morrison, “Why Autism Strikes Mostly Boys,” University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice-President for Research’s website (November 27, 1917): https://research.umn.edu/inquiry/post/why-autism-strikes-mostly-boys;

[2] Sylvie Goldman, “Sex, Gender, and the Diagnosis of Autism—A Biosocial View of the Male Preponderance,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 7 (2013), 675-679; Lauren Little, et al., “Do early caregiver concerns differ for girls with autism spectrum disorders?” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 21 (2017), 728-32;

[3] Jorieke Duvocot, et al., “Factors Influencing the Probability of a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Girls versus Boys,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 21 (2017), 646-58.

[4] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young, and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Pre-Diagnosis Concerns for Children Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 20 (2016), 75-84.

[5] Although this view remains somewhat controversial.  Compare two recent articles in Spectrum News:  Nicholette Zeliadt, “Diagnostic Tests Miss Autism Features in Girls” (May 13, 2017): https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diagnostic-tests-miss-autism-features-girls/; and Hannah Furfaro, “Diagnostic tests don’t miss girls with autism, study suggests”: https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/diagnostic-tests-dont-miss-girls-autism-study-suggests/.  It is worth noting, however, that the study described in the second article looked at girls already diagnosed with autism—which undermines its main point.

[6] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young. and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorder Based on DSM-5: Evidence from Clinician and Teacher Reporting,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 42 (2014), 1381–1393.

[7] Rachel Hiller, Robyn Young, and Nathan Weber, “Sex Differences in Pre-Diagnosis Concerns for Children Later Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 20 (2016), 75-84.

[8] Maureen Durkin, et al., “Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children (2002–2010): Socioeconomic, Racial, and Ethnic Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 107:11 (2017), 1818-1826.  See also Pauline Thomas, et al., “The Association of Autism Diagnosis with Socioeconomic Status,” Autism:  The International Journal of Research and Practice 16:2 (March, 2012), 201-13.

[9] C.D. Pulcini, et al., “Poverty and Trends in Three Chronic Disorders,” Pediatrics 139:3 (March, 2017).

[10] Maureen Durkin, et al., “Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children (2002–2010): Socioeconomic, Racial, and Ethnic Disparities,” American Journal of Public Health 107:11 (2017), 1818-1826.

[11] Amber Angell, et al., “A Review of Diagnosis and Service Disparities Among Children with Autism from Racial or Ethnic Minority Groups in the United States,” International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities 55 (2018), 145-80.  See also Jason Travers and Michael Krezmien, “Racial Disparities in Autism Identification in the United States During 2014,” Exceptional Children 84 (2018), 403-19.  Travers and Kremien pay special attention to differences between states in racial disparities; these differences can be quite significant.

[12] Emily Sohn, “Why Autism Seems to Cluster in Some Immigrant Groups,” Spectrum News, 11/29/17.

[13] Christina Kang-Yi, et al., “Influence of Community-Level Cultural Beliefs about Autism on Families’ and Professionals’ Care for Children,” Transcultural Psychiatry 55 (2018), 623-47.  But compare the following three studies, each of which comes to a different conclusion about Mexican immigrant mothers’ attitudes towards autism: Elizabeth Ijalba, “Hispanic Immigrant Mothers of Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: How Do They Understand and Cope With Autism?” American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 25 (2016), 200-13;  Shana Cohen and Jessica Miguel, “ Amor and Social Stigma:  ASD Beliefs Among Immigrant Mexican Parents,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 48 (2018), 1995-2009; Brenda Barrio, et al., “The Impact of Culture on Parental Perceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorders:  Striving for Culturally Competent Practices,” Multicultural Learning and Teaching 14 (2019), 1-9.

[14] Hannah Furfaro, “New Autism Map Points to Diagnostic Deserts in United States,” Spectrum News, 8/28/19:

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.