Wednesday, September 7, 2011


With students all over the country going back to school, stories have arisen in the media lately about special needs children being punished for their outbursts by being excluded from educational services the law demands they be provided. In Texas, a six-year-old special needs student was kicked off a school bus and left near a busy intersection. Details of what happened remain unclear, as he apparently can’t explain what led to a bus driver placing him in a potentially dangerous situation. In Florida, a six-year-old girl with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was expelled on the first day of school from a charter school specifically designed to meet the needs to children with behavioral issues; allegedly she screamed, bit, and hit the teacher. These stories, as well as those told by my friends whose children with autism have been suspended from school because of their behavior, make me thankful that we were able to homeschool Alex throughout his school years. We could address any concerns at home without the interference of school personnel, who should be equipped to handle behavioral issues of special needs children.

Unfortunately, many people working with children who have autism are not well trained in dealing with outbursts. Instead of recognizing behaviors as likely resulting from anxiety, they may handle the child as simply being defiant or uncooperative, restraining the child and/or punishing with exclusion or suspension from school. As the number of children with autism increases due to the autism epidemic, poor training of personnel who work with these children is no longer an option. Several years ago, the special education department at the school where I teach seventh grade English on a part-time basis brought in a supervisor to give an in-service meeting regarding how to handle children with autism. When he began his talk mentioning “refrigerator mothers” (which he admitted was a theory that had been refuted), I knew he was not the person to be teaching others about autism. As he talked, my colleague friends kept watching for my reaction to what he said. Since I don’t have a good poker face, I’m sure my disagreement with some of his comments was evident. Realizing that he noticed my fellow teachers gauging my facial expressions in response to his remarks, I explained to him that I have a son with autism and that my friends were trying to see if I agreed with the information he was presenting. Undaunted, he went on with his talk that was mostly factually accurate but actually offered little insight in terms of how to work with children with autism. I doubt he really knew; I wouldn’t have known, had it not been for living with Alex and learning to handle his outbursts over time. Perhaps if more school personnel learned how to deal better with autism meltdowns, fewer children would be suspended or expelled from school.

Over the summer, I became fascinated with a television show on National Geographic Channel called Dog Whisperer in which dog trainer, or whisperer, Cesar Millan works with badly behaved dogs that exhibit aggressive or anxious behaviors. I found his insights into dog psychology interesting as he explained why certain dogs acted as they did. In retraining the dogs, he had three rules for the humans when first interacting with the dogs: “No touching, no talking, no eye contact.” After thinking about those rules, I realized that they would also apply when dealing with children who are having meltdowns. Mind you, comparing an upset child with autism to a badly behaved dog may seem harsh, but I suspect both are engaged in the “fight or flight” instincts when they are highly agitated. With Alex, we found that touching him during a meltdown, whether to restrain him gently or to try calming him with a touch, can make him more agitated and aggressive. Hence, the “No touching” rule is a good start. For a child with extreme tactile sensitivity, even a gentle touch may be perceived as a threat and lead to that child reacting with physical aggression, such as hitting or kicking. The second suggestion, “No talking,” needs some modification when dealing with the upset child. We have found that allowing Alex to express his fears, anxiety, and/or anger verbally is necessary to resolve his agitation, and we need to listen to what he’s saying. Once we let him talk, we can then reassure him verbally; however, we must be calm, quiet, and positive and never argumentative in doing so. When a child is screaming, maintaining composure is not an easy task. Once we convey that we know Alex is upset and that we’re willing to help him deal with whatever the source of his frustration may be, he usually begins to settle down. Even the wording of our comments must be careful. For example, if we ask him what the problem is, he will likely become more agitated. If instead we say something reassuring such as, “We will help you,” he’s more amenable to our attempts to soothe him. The last rule about no eye contact also works because we find it more important to watch Alex’s hands as a judge of how he’s responding to the anxiety. As he calms, his hands stop shaking, and we know he’s back to his old self. In addition, we watch his hands to make certain he’s not ready to hurl something in anger or use them to attack us physically. Dealing with an anxious, aggressive child with autism can be upsetting and difficult. However, if the three basic tenets of “No touching, no talking, no eye contact” were utilized instead of “pouring gasoline onto fires” by upsetting the child even more, I truly believe fewer children with autism would exhibit behaviors leading to suspension or expulsion from school. It’s certainly worth a try.

“The Lord says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.’” Psalm 32:8


K. C. said...

Truly wonderful, Pam. Those three "rules" are a great place to start when dealing with any child who is out of control. I like the modifications as well: some kids really need to talk things out in order to feel better. Thank you for another insightful and inspiring post!

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.,
As always, I appreciate your kind comments. I tend to forget that some behaviors are common in all children--not just those with autism! As one who likes to talk things out to feel better, I understand where Alex needs talk therapy at times. :)