Autism in the Schools — A Personal Narrative

After losing a full time freelance to full time position because the company I was working for learned I have Asperger’s and, as they put it, they had “no intention of accommodating you,” I started substitute teaching for Dallas ISD. Because I live in Richardson, a suburb just north of Dallas, I was restricted, due to travel time, to which schools I can teach at. And through some sort of bizarre set of coincidences, I was somehow only been able to take special education classes — meaning, I was surrounded by autistic children almost every weekday for over half a year.

It was a very eye-opening. I saw and interacted with autistic children in elementary, middle, and high school. And I saw how nobody — not a single special education teacher, not a single teacher’s aide, let alone any of the regular teachers in which some of these students have “inclusion” — has the foggiest idea what to do with these children. I  saw them try to interact (and discipline) autistic children as though they were simply neurotypical children with behavior problems. But this is exactly the wrong way to think of them. Given what we have learned about autistic people, given what we know about why they behave so differently from neurotypicals, one is bound to fail to teach proper behaviors, let alone provide them with the rest of the education they need to receive at their schools. As a result, I have seen in the high schools extremely intelligent young men and women who have not received nearly the education they could have received.

At the elementary school, there was about a dozen students, most of whom had autism. When they would “misbehave,” they would be threatened with moving colors, etc. that are typically used in the schools. These tactics clearly had no effect whatsoever on their behaviors, as they didn’t mean anything to the children. Abstract symbolism don’t mean much to us. Yes, there were picture cards for the students, but the use of those picture cards seemed to be limited at best. Picture cards are necessary for autistic children, but they have to be used constantly and consistently. But more than that, threats upset autistic children, shutting them down, pushing them toward having breakdowns. If you want to change an autistic child’s behavior, you have to use logic and reason — and use it repeatedly. Also, if they are doing something to another child, you have to get them to empathize with the other child to get them to stop what they are doing.

For example, one of the children was poking another in the back. The one being poked was just sitting there and taking it (probably having gotten used to her poking him all the time), but he was obviously annoyed, as anyone would be. I got down on the floor and said to her, “Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that?” I tried to get her attention, repeated her name, and kept asking the question. After a while, she finally said, “No.” I said, “Well then, you shouldn’t do that to him if you wouldn’t like it.” And she stopped. And she never did it again — at least, the day I was there.

I was in that class with the special ed teacher’s aide. During recess, the aide asked me, “How on earth are you reaching these kids?” She had never seen anyone change their behaviors so quickly before. Of course, there’s nothing I was doing that I haven’t learned from simply doing research on autism and some of the behavior modifications used. It is nothing anyone out there couldn’t do or learn about. So I told her what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was a complete revelation to her. I gave a brief explanation of what is happening with children with autism, why they acted as they did, etc., which of course ties back in with how to properly teach proper behavior to autistic children.

That same day, toward the end of the day, the same girl got upset and ran to the other side of the room. She threw a tissue box and tried to hide among the pillows in the corner. I went over to her and told her she needed to pick up the tissue box. She of course just withdrew. I had noticed earlier that she liked playing a computer game with a gorilla, so I grabbed a toy gorilla and started talking to her through the gorilla. The gorilla asked her if she wanted to come back to story time and if she would pick up the tissue box. She smiled at me, nodded, and stood up, picked up the tissue box and put it away, and then walked over and sat with the other students and listened to the story. Why did this work? Autistic people are object-oriented, she liked the gorilla game, and I got her to focus on an object she liked and had it talk to her. In other words, I successfully communicated with an autistic child. But few truly understand how to do this.

At one of the high schools at which I used to sub, I taught in all three of the special education classes, which range from classes with students so severely autistic that they are nonverbal and can just barely function at all to talkative, intelligent, humorous students who I wonder why they are not in inclusion classes. There are students who are clearly only in school just to give their parents a break — they won’t be learning anything, and whatever they learn, the won’t be applying outside of school, as they are not going to be holding any sort of job. But those aren’t the students I want to talk about.

The students I want to talk about are those who are together in a special education class that is designed to teach little more than a handful of practical living skills, but who really ought to be in a regular class, because they are definitely intelligent enough to do the work. Many of these students are in fact probably more intelligent than the vast majority of regular students. Why, then, are they not in regular classes? It is because of their “behavioral problems” that have followed them throughout their school years. These have been lucky enough to be identified as autistic, so their behavioral problems were sequestered away in the special education classes rather than the behavioral units (more on that later), but as a result, they have also been sequestered away from a real education. And it is all because nobody understands how to properly modify their behaviors. By the time they reach high school, they haven’t been taught how to properly interact with anyone other than other autistic people — and a dozen frustrated teachers. As a result, we have an army of highly intelligent people who have received no education to speak of and thus will not be able to live up to their full potential. The person who could have been the next Newton may be that socially awkward, “slow” young man or woman who talks funny busing your table before you sit down at the restaurant. That is all they are really being taught to do, and that is a real shame. And it is all because nobody understands how to raise autistic children to be functioning adults.

But, as troublesome as all of this should be to you, I promise you that things can be far, far worse. I know, because I have seen it.

One day I was assigned to a middle school behavioral unit. If you know anything at all about the regular behavior of middle school students, you can only imagine how over-the-top ridiculously bad the behavior of these students had to have been to get them in a behavioral unit. We are talking about repeat offender fighters, kids who take offense at everything and anything and who are convinced that beating the crap out of people is the solution to every problem. In here was one student who — other than cursing like a sailor at the drop of a hat — quietly did all of his school work and played on the computer. He wanted to be left alone to do what he was doing, but of course none of the other students would allow that to happen. They would harass him, turn off his computer, do anything they could to get him riled up and curse at them. A girl in the class, however, would first harass him until he called her a “bitch,” at which point she would get mad and hit him. She hit him four times before she was taken away (by the other adult in the classroom with me the whole time, since there is supposed to be at least two people in there most of the time) to be suspended.

However, there was a time when the other adult had to take three other students away, leaving me with this student and another. The constantly harassed student suddenly came up and started talking to me. The first thing I noticed is that he had an odd way of speaking (odd if you’re not autistic) and seemed a bit awkward. It was obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He started complaining about the other kids, and I said that if he didn’t like these kids, why was he doing things to get in the behavioral unit? His answer?

“I’ve been in the behavioral unit since I was in first grade. I was put in it after I bit my teacher. I’ve been in the behavioral unit in first grade and second grade and third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade and now sixth grade.”

“You’ve been in the behavioral unit all this time because you bit a teacher in first grade?”

“Well, no . . .”

Well, of course not. But from what I had been witnessing — and what I would witness in the last hour of the day — convinced me that, in a real sense, he was in fact in behavioral units since first grade because he was in one in first grade.

Here is the probable scenario. This kid was/is an undiagnosed autistic. Maybe Asperger’s, but definitely on the spectrum. And definitely prone to meltdowns. His odd behaviors were probably enough of a turn off for his fellow students and teachers, but no doubt they considered his meltdowns to be mere temper tantrums. Meltdowns occur when a stressful situation — or series of them — becomes too much. Meltdowns can appear to be very violent — many autistics will also engage in self-harm, especially if they are not allowed an outlet for their frustration. It would not surprise me if more than a few people have gotten bitten by an autistic child during a meltdown if the adult was intervening wrong. And if the child is undiagnosed, he’s not an autistic child who needs help (but who won’t get the right kind of help because almost nobody understands how to help them), but a serious behavioral problem. So we get a child who gets easily stressed having a meltdown, a teacher who is stressed dealing with it wrong, and therefore get a bitten teacher and a first grader sent off to the behavioral unit.

Of course, the kind of children in the behavioral unit are anything but understanding and kind. They are cruel, bullies, a certain percent are sociopathic, and autistic children are weird and seem to be the perfect victims. So they get picked on, the stress results in violent meltdowns, and the child remains in the behavioral unit. Year after year after year. And the problem is never solved, but is in fact worsened by such an environment.

That is the situation this poor child is in. He’s been placed in a never-ending Hell, all because he’s an undiagnosed autistic. His fate? He has been taken away to the mental hospital twice. And based on his conversation with me, he is very, very, very angry.

So after being picked on all day, he was told at the end of the day to go outside and get his backpack. He didn’t want to, but I talked him into it (which got me cursed out a few times for my effort). He stepped out to see his papers being blown away, the girl who was being suspended for hitting him all day having apparently dumped out his things. And that’s when the meltdown occurred. He began picking up desks and throwing them. Keep in mind that he’s eleven. All of the desks and chairs ended up in a pile in the middle of the room. It was a slow-motion rage — oddly controlled, as he went out of his way to make sure he never threw a chair or desk in such a way that I would be hit by one. And I was close to him the entire time, trying to talk him back.

I never did talk him back. The bell rang, the teachers told me they would take care of it, and I had to pick up my own children from daycare and school. When I walked away, he was outside the portable, banging his head against the metal side. I glanced back one last time to see a chair flying out of the door.

Without a diagnosis of autism, and without parents like us, Daniel could have been that child. That is a sad, terrifying, and infuriating thought.

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8 Things to Know When Conversing With an Aspie

Perhaps the most obvious issue people have with Aspies involves communicating with them. I’ve been told that I intimidate people, that I can be embarrassing to those I’m with, and that I’m too aggressive. All of these come from the fact that I have Asperger’s. The way I naturally communicate with people, I often come across as intimidating, arrogant, and aggressive. Those who know me well know better, but those who don’t know me well are likely to leave with a bad impression. Naturally, this is bad for social situations, including employment.

Among the handicaps Aspies have when engaged in conversation is an inability to look people in the eye. If we are far enough away and are looking at your mouth or nose, it looks like we are looking you in the eye when you talk to us, but if we’re much closer, it’s obvious we’re not. Now think about what this communicates to you, if you’re not on the spectrum. If someone doesn’t look you in the eye, you tend not to trust them. That’s a bad first impression, and the Aspie hasn’t even opened his or her mouth yet.

But that’s not the only problem with the eyes. Our peripheral vision is on equal par with our centered vision, meaning things around us catch our attention. While you’re talking to us, it’s not uncommon for us to look around, glance at other people and at things. It appears that we’re not paying attention, but in fact we are paying you attention — we hear everything you say, and we’ll respond to it.

Our visual egalitarianism also extends to our hearing. As a result, we hear everything around us at equal volume, while you neurotypicals can focus your hearing on the speaker. This means that your voice can be drowned out, meaning we may ask you to repeat yourself. This can be interpreted as us not paying you proper attention — being rude — when in fact you just got drowned out by whatever sounds there are in the room. Now, imagine you are in a situation in which you hear everything at the same volume. You would probably assume everyone else does as well (since you extrapolate others’ experiences from your own), meaning you would likely talk in a louder voice. If I end up talking too loud to you, that is why. Also, all of that noise can be overwhelming to us. So do not be surprised if, at least occasionally, we seek a quiet place to let things settle down in our heads.

Of course, all of this requires that we have actually engaged in a conversation in the first place.

If we’re introduced, I may or may not greet you. If you greet me first, or if whoever is introducing us is explicit that we’re being introduced, I’m fine. But any ambiguity will leave me just standing there.

Also, I don’t engage in small talk. I certainly won’t initiate it, and my contributions to small talk will be minimal. I don’t engage in chitchat for the sake of chitchat, and I’m not likely to engage in much gossip, either. If the topic doesn’t interest me, I don’t pretend to be interested. But if the topic does interest me . . . then we have a whole other set of problems.

If you say something to me–ask me a question or greet me or say goodbye–odds are it will take me a second or two to process what has been said to me and to then process a proper response. I’ve had people in that time I’m taking tell me that someone was speaking to me. I knew they were speaking to me, and I was processing the statement and an answer to that statement. At the same time, given the fact that I may not have noticed I was being addressed, it also helps if someone points out to me I’ve been addressed. Even knowing this, the former is annoying to me in the moment, though my knowledge of the latter dissipates that annoyance.

If I am given a platform on which I can speak at length on a topic of interest to me, I’m in my perfect environment. I am full of information on that topic, and I can go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it. It will be less of a conversation than a lecture. If you are a sincere fellow traveler in the search for truth, you and I will have a blast together. If not, I’m afraid I don’t suffer fools very well.

Also, it is very important that you don’t be wrong. If you are wrong about something and I know it, you may rest assured that I will interrupt what you are saying to correct you. I cannot stand not to correct someone immediately, because I know that if you start with a false premise, everything you are getting ready to say is going to be wrong. To my mind, why on earth would you want to waste your time developing a false argument on false premises? I wouldn’t. I actually like being corrected when I am in fact wrong. And it bothers me when I am not corrected when I am wrong.

A good example of this involved my sister-in-law, who was a music major in college. She was with me when I was talking to a friend about music, and I was getting the difference between 3-4 and 4-4 all wrong. She let me go on and on, misinforming this guy, and then only told me I was wrong after my friend left. I asked her why she didn’t correct me — after all, she was the music expert. More, I figured if she wasn’t correcting me, I was right in what I was saying. Worse, there was now someone else out there as misinformed as I had been, and it was my fault. Given that I would welcome correction on points of fact, I have a hard time understanding why others wouldn’t. At the same time, I have come to understand that my sister-in-law was being polite in not correcting me in front of my friend, because politeness is an important social virtue. Being right rarely ever is. It is perhaps not surprising that Aspies fall short of the social virtues, even if we do tend to be deeply moral.

Finally, you will discover that I have a tendency to interrupt to say what I need to say. There are a few things going on with that behavior. One, I interrupt because I’m afraid I will forget what I’m going to say. And I have a great deal of experience to back that up. Two, the feeling I get when I cannot say what I need to say when I need to say it is equivalent to if you were trying to tell me something, and I kept interrupting you before you could get three words out — and I kept doing it and doing it and doing it. At what point would you interrupt me and talk over me? The problem is that I have that feeling immediately upon having something to say. And all too often I act upon it. Naturally, this is interpreted as being rude and arrogant.

For those of you who have engaged me in conversation, you probably recognize every single one of these traits. Social media no doubt tempers or eliminates many of these, and exacerbates others. So if you find yourself in conversation with someone and they are exhibiting all of these traits, they are not being an arrogant asshole — at least, not on purpose — rather it’s quite likely you are talking with an Aspie. Have patience with us. And don’t be afraid to take us aside and point it out when we are doing some of these things. It is natural for us to do them, but it’s not impossible for us to — at least occasionally — temper some of our own extremes.

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.

What to Do with Employees on the Autism Spectrum

People on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s have poor executive functioning in their brains. This can have various implications for work. Here are some things bosses can do to ensure their employees on the spectrum succeed in the workplace.

  • ·         Give step-by-step instructions and have your employee repeat them back
  • ·         Make instructions as simple and concrete as possible
  • ·         Break down tasks/assignments into smaller chunks with more deadlines
  • ·         Provide written instructions, or at least have the employee take notes
  • ·         Allow the employee to keep “cheat sheets” around which they can look at to ensure they know what they need to do
  • ·         When possible, provide a daily checklist so your employee can check off what they have finished
  • ·         Provide the employee with a rubric so they know what a successful project looks like
  • ·         Say to the employee “This is important because . . .”
  • ·         Provide them with a routine when possible

All of these things help those on the spectrum keep on track and to prioritize. But do keep in mind that if you do provide them with a way to prioritize, they will prioritize in exactly that way. You have to provide them with any nuances, because such nuances will not occur to them on their own.

For example, let’s say that you have four tasks for your employee. The most important thing to do is task A, then B, then C, then D. D is the least important, but it has to get done too. Also, the times when certain things in each set have to get done varies. So if there is something in A that can get done in two days, the priority is to do something in D due in an hour. However, if you fail to discuss the way time factors into prioritizing, the person on the spectrum will simply get all of A done, then do all of B, then do all of C, and then do as much of D as he can get to. He may not even do any in D, since the others are top priority. As you can imagine, this employee is going to get in trouble for not getting to anything in D. However, since the employer did not explain how to prioritize using time, it is not really the fault of the autistic employee that D wasn’t getting done.

What typically has to be done is to allow the employee to get down prioritizing A-B-C-D, then introducing them to the time factor so that they understand the time element of prioritizing. They can and will learn the entire system, because to them it will be an algorithm by which they work, but it has to be taught to them explicitly and in steps.

Does this sound like a major pain in the neck? Yet, once you have your employee trained, you can rest assured that this employee will do the work pretty much without flaw, and will be a major workhorse. Of course, being a major workhorse can itself be its own problem, since his fellow employees will likely not like the fact that the autistic employee is so focused on work that he is getting more done than everyone else. We all know that when that happens, office politics come into play. Beware of what your regular employees say about your autistic employee, and be aware that your autistic employee is complete oblivious that anyone is undermining him or in any way acting underhanded. His social world can completely fall apart, and he won’t know it. Also, it probably won’t help him that he’s typically too blunt and direct, won’t look anyone in the eye, has no earthly idea how to make small talk, won’t notice when people are bored about his obsession (typically work), treats bosses and employees the same, has a tendency to interrupt during a conversation or walk away in the middle of one, and ask too many questions.

But do also keep in mind that your employee on the spectrum also has the following traits:

  • ·         Attention to detail
  • ·         Sustained concentration
  • ·         Excellent long term memory
  • ·         Vast knowledge in certain fields
  • ·         Tolerance of repetition and routine
  • ·         Strong logic and analytical skills
  • ·         Creative thinking
  • ·         Bluntness (which can be good if you want to know what’s really working and what’s not)
  • ·         Honest
  • ·         Loyal
  • ·         Strong desire to do well

These are the reasons you want someone on the spectrum to work for you. They may not be the best employees from the perspective of being socially ideal according to neurotypical standards, but they will typically be your best workers, once you have them trained.

Why I Fight

I want you to imagine someone talking to a deaf person, yelling at them, complaining that they won’t listen. Imagine this person insisting that the deaf person be disciplined for refusing to listen and, because he wouldn’t listen, to be disciplined for subordination.

We would obviously find the person who behaves like this appalling. They are expecting something from someone they are literally incapable of doing. A deaf person’s ears do not work the same as yours — do not work at all in this case. But it would be just as ridiculous to expect a color blind person to differentiate between red and green. Or that a blind person be required to take an art appreciation class. We recognize exactly how ridiculous these things are.

But when it comes to autism, there is a completely irrational expectation that the person simply change their behavior, as though that were at all possible. It’s not. The wiring of our brains are different, the workings of our brains are different, and that results in different kinds of behaviors. I can be made conscious of certain behaviors, but it is difficult at best to always, constantly override those behaviors. For someone like my son, who has mild to moderate autism, and is only 8, the expectation for him to always be able to control himself the way a regular person can is completely unrealistic. As unrealistic as expecting the deaf to listen to you.

Worse, it seems that it is we on the spectrum who always have to accommodate, who have to try to fit in. Why shouldn’t others accommodate us — at least on occasion? Why don’t you try to understand us? We are forced to try to understand you, but it seems that nobody even bothers to try to truly understand us. It would be as though nobody who spoke ever tried to learn sign language, but simply treated the deaf as mental defectives who we need to get out of the way. Because that is the way we are treated. And it needs to stop.

Executive Function and Perceiving the World

The brain’s executive function creates a hierarchy within the brain itself, with the executive function at the top, in charge of setting goals and priorities, preventing one from giving in to whatever urges one would otherwise follow. One can think of it as the CEO of the brain. Those with weaker executive function are going to have brains with weak or even nonexistent CEOs. Yet, an organization like the body requires at least a weak EF/CEO for the world to make sense to the rest of the brain and for the body to show control from the brain. Unconscious desires get expressed, resulting in socially inappropriate actions or comments. However, conscious moral construction is able to replace EF, or to at least lend it support.

F. A. Hayek observed in The Sensory Order, and this idea is supported by Stuart Kauffman, that complex systems model the world according to their own internal structures. Hierarchically, ordered brains with a strong EF, would see hierarchy everywhere; spontaneously ordered brains with weak EFs would see spontaneous orders everywhere. Each “sees” the world through their own structures.

Network controls are through negative feedback — this is cybernetic control. The stronger positive feedback is, the more control is lost. If negative feedback is dominant, the person is very controlled, but not very creative; if they are codominant, the person is creative (just like with spontaneous orders); if positive feedback dominates, they are on the autism spectrum (including ADD/ADHD).

If positive feedback dominates, control breaks down and cycles dominate. More and more processes become decoupled from each other — which may explain why severe autistics are often non-verbal and have to rely exclusively on images. If words become dissociated from images, how can you speak? And of course, the more decoupled processes in the brain are from each other, the less sense the world makes, the less the brain can integrate.