May 11, 2015
Q: My son has ASD and is
being sent to in school suspension (ISS) for "meltdowns"
(screaming and throwing things) that seem to happen when
he refuses to work and his teacher insists that he do.
He thinks he has to do things perfectly and this causes
him a great deal of stress when doing work. I want to
advocate for him because his teacher thinks he is doing
all of this "on purpose". Should I get an official
advocate? What can I tell them to do instead?
A: Since I don't know your son, I will offer some generic
ideas that I hope will be helpful. Navigating the school
years is not easy and you will need support along the
way. I think the very best first step is to work with
the school district. If you can find your support from
within, then you can create your son's advocacy group
from those supportive folks at the school. Feel free to
share this information with the school team, it might
lead to some good discussion.
1. Here are some good resources
to share on the topic of using suspension (and ISS) that
might add helpful information to the discussion of "why
This webpage outlines a training called Masked and Misunderstood:
High functioning Individuals with ASD. The training was
developed by Dr. Aspy and Dr. Grossman from Plano, Texas
and would directly address your concerns.
The CASEL program has a lot
of research demonstrating how a school can lower violent
behavior, eliminate the use of suspension and increase
academic scores through a school wide curriculum of social
and emotional learning.
Here are some thoughts
about "what instead".
2. Dr. Ross Greene points
out that the words we use to describe the behavior we
see, leads us to the interventions we choose to use. If
someone says that your son is acting out "on purpose"
that creates a focus that leads the person down a pretty
negative and blaming path. As educators, it is much more
helpful to determine why he is behaving this way, as a
matter of fact it's the law. Once the team has determined
"why" he is refusing to work or losing control
of his emotions, then you need to go a step further to
get at the actual teaching part.
3. If your son graduates
from the K-12 system and he is unable to control his emotions;
understand how to negotiate difficult social situations;
or establish healthy relationships, he will have great
difficulty succeeding at life, despite his IQ (Daniel
Goleman). Directly teaching skills needed to support his
autism is what I recommend. The inability to control fear,
anxiety and other big emotions is referred to as a problem
of Emotional Regulation and it is very much a part of
autism. This is not a character flaw but a developmental
delay, and one that can be addressed through teaching.
If a child over the age of
7 is having "meltdowns" then there is a problem
with emotional regulation. He is not able to identify
big emotions within himself before they take over and
then he has difficulty calming him self and recovering
from the incident. The educational team should address
this proactively, as a part of the educational plan, in
the IEP. Anxiety is part of the autism profile because
autism is a social disorder. Whether the disability is
visually obvious or not, whether he has an IQ or 90 or
140, if he has autism, social environments will be difficult
to handle (by definition) and school is a massively social
environment. If you think in terms of anxiety, you can
come up with all kinds of relaxation ideas to infuse throughout
his day (before, during and after school). This might
be as simple as a stretching program before school, a
muscle relaxation and visualization break during school,
and a tai chi class after school). Many researchers (Daniel
Goleman, Richard Davidson and Daniel Siegel) support using
relaxation to support someone who has problems controlling
their emotional responses. The skill of relaxation is
a life long skill that can increase your son's chances
of handling frustrating situations across his lifetime.
Perfectionism is another
common trait in autism. This might stem from not being
able to "predict" people (a hallmark of social
cognition which is part of the developmental delay in
autism). This failure to predict can lead to a lot of
unexpected mistakes and failures across the person's life.
Perfectionism can develop due to an anxiety driven, biological
need to "get it right". . If it
is determined that he is refusing because he is afraid
to fail, then the team should explore that part of his
autism. If he knew absolutely every answer on the test
yesterday, but then today he read a question and the wording
confused him for some reason, he might have put his head
down on his desk and withdrawn in an attempt to avoid
the big anxiety that causes a loss of control. Guessing
can be really hard for a student who demonstrates perfectionism.
One idea is to have him take tests or complete assignments
with adaptations. An example might be telling him to answer
only the questions that he knows 100%, then have him sit
down with a teacher, therapist or aide and practice "guessing"
at the answers he is unsure of. This gives him safe practice
guessing and the adult is able to assess what he actually
knows and where he might need more instruction. Avoid
blaming words in this scenario, teach him that his reluctance
to guess is a reaction to his autism and anxiety but that
it is going to hinder his success long term and so working
through the anxiety needs to be part of his education.
Just a skill he needs to learn (like reading or math)
to help him become an independent adult.
Even if using punishment
stops a behavior in the moment, it does not teach how
to do things differently and in different environments.
It does not teach the student about himself or how to
successfully make positive changes. The educational team
needs to have this discussion.
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