Autism Is Not a Behavioral “Problem”

One thing people do not seem to get when it comes to people on the spectrum is that they literally cannot help certain behaviors, and they do not necessarily respond the same way as regular children or adults do to given situations or requests, depending on how they are delivered. To expect them to do so would be equivalent to expecting a blind student to look at you when you speak to her, or a deaf child to listen up or a man in a wheelchair to walk over to you. There is a tendency to think that the issues surrounding people on the spectrum are “simply” behavioral; however, there is a powerful underlying neurology that affects that behavior and the way they interact with the world and other people.

As a consequence, the situation in our schools is, for those of us who understand what is really going on with autism, absurd. We expect autistic children to simply change their behaviors. However, if there were a deaf child, do you think they would refuse to have someone who could do sign language to communicate, but insist that she listen like all the other students? For similar reasons, it is important to understand that there is far more to autistic people than meets the eye, and dealing with them does in fact require training. That training is lacking in a variety of institutions, in schools across this country, including in special education — I have seen the lack. But that lack needs to be remedied.

Take for example the issue of meltdowns, which are unfortunately not uncommon among people on the spectrum. If you are having a meltdown, you have no control over your behavior whatsoever. This is an unfortunate feature of children with autism, especially younger children. It occurs when they get stuck on something and/or are completely overwhelmed in sensory and social input. This is a feature of autism which many children grow out of, but which some do not. Meltdowns occur when a child is in a situation in which he feels so overwhelmed and threatened by his environment that becomes overwhelmed. This is not an intentional behavior problem. There is nothing intentional in meltdowns.

A meltdown should not be mistaken for a temper tantrum, as the latter are an intentional way for the child to get what he or she wants, while the meltdown comes about from a distressing situation. They can often be mistaken for tantrums because there is typically some object of focus involved. To understand what is happening, you have to think about what happens when there is positive feedback in a sound system. The sounds gets louder and louder until it becomes a deafening screech. The same thing is happening in an autistic meltdown. This is a feature of autism, and it cannot be punished. What must happen is the distressing situation must either be avoided or the person has to be prepared for it.

If someone is having a meltdown, you cannot control having that meltdown, since it is a feature of autistic physiology. Unlike with a tantrum, a meltdown should not be punished, as it makes as much sense to punish someone for something completely out of their control as it would be to punish a deaf person for refusing to listen. Yet, these are seen as “behavioral problems” all too often.

These sorts of problems arise when the adults do not have the training they need to deal with an autistic child, to ensure they are not overwhelmed and so they understand how to deal with things like meltdowns. Our son, for example, is also hyperactive, and as a result he has a hard time sitting still. In a school environment, it is expected that the children sit still for long periods of time. However, Daniel simply cannot do this — at least, not without giving him something that will keep his mind busy in place of his body. Understanding the nature of autism would go a long way toward helping educators deal with autistic children and help them to get a good education.

Fortunately for Daniel, his mother and I understand these things, and we plan to fight to make sure Daniel is treated well. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of behaviors we don’t put up with. But we also know how to deal with them and how to get Daniel to stop them. Repetition and logic work best for Daniel. And talking him into empathizing with the person, if he’s aggravating someone else. But nobody knows these things, including most special education teachers. I have seen plenty trying to treat autistic children like regular children, and they inevitably fail to get the desired results. All because, although (if we include Asperger’s and autism, as the DSM-V does) around 2% of the population is on the spectrum, it seems that nobody really knows anything at all about it. That is something that needs to change. That is something I intend to change.

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