Ben was in science class with his sixth-grade classmates. Stuart was seated next to Ben, and he was moving, moving, moving the container of seeds closer, closer, and closer to the edge of “STOP THAT”. Ben said to Stuart. Ben’s paraeducator asked Stuart to put the container back to its proper place. Done. Back to science, right? Wrong. “WHY DID YOU DO THAT STUART?” Stuart smiles at Ben. Ben then wonders to himself, “Why did he smile at me? Is he laughing at me?” “WHY DID YOU DO THAT STUART?” Stuart does not answer. “WHY DID YOU DO THAT STUART?” Then, Ben’s gone. Removed from the classroom because with each “WHY DID YOU DO THAT STUART?” his anger increased with his volume level.
Five minutes after this happens, I receive an email (because I am seeing Ben later that evening) from his well-intentioned case manager. Parts of the story were recounted — basically, Ben yelled again, Ben was removed again, Ben is in trouble again — and then the bottom line, “I had a STERN conversation with Ben. He KNOWS he can’t do it.” Again.
He’s “known” for a long time that yelling in class was “wrong”. If a stern lecture was the antidote, then, I guess we’d all have the cure to autism. This teacher is a well-trained professional whom I respect highly. We’ve developed a great system of communication in order to provide more comprehensive, targeted support for Ben. But, when I saw him tonight, I knew I had a foundation to lay. Yes, Ben lacks the coping strategies for managing his anger more appropriately and we could continue to provide him more deep breathing techniques, another “recovery spot”, a visual cue for how to request a break. These are all great ideas, but they are too late and miss the mark.
The issue is WHY Ben is getting mad. Well, Stuart broke a rule. You and I might realize that this rule isn’t a commandment, but Ben lacked that frame of reference. He wanted that rule enforced, and, even more basic than that, we had to discuss WHY people break rules. (That is not a simple conversation, by the way. Ben asked for a Top 3; my take was: to have fun, because they can, and because it makes them cool. Again, though, try explaining each of those!) Then, we had to build an internal assessment system in Ben’s head so that he could decide WHEN it mattered if a rule was broken. Does it hurt me? If so, do this. If not, do that.
Contrast this process with: Ben, stop yelling. I NEED THE ANSWER. Ben, stop yelling. I DON’T UNDERSTAND. Ben, let’s leave the classroom. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG. Ben, you can’t do that. I KNOW THAT BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY HE BROKE THE RULE.
Why not address these social issues? Is it too hard? Yes, it’s a long, winding road. Does it take too long? Cynically, I say yes, when we want no disruptions in the general education classroom. But, clearly, NOT addressing these social issues is only producing more. So, ironically, it takes longer not to address these issues. Ultimately, though, in Ben’s situation, the support staff missed the forest for the trees, having no idea of what Ben didn’t know they focused on what Ben didn’t do.
“Tsk, tsk, Ben, don’t do it again” is an ill-fitting bandage to a systemic skill deficit in ASD.