Teaching Social Skills to Kids with AS as Opposed to Blaming Them

24 Feb

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.


Posted by on February 24, 2011 in ASD in the Schools


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4 responses to “Teaching Social Skills to Kids with AS as Opposed to Blaming Them

  1. C. S. Wyatt

    February 24, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    I’m writing about peer relationships over on The Autistic Me for a conference presentation this week. The issue of “fairness” and “rules” keeps coming up from autistic students, parents, and educators. The insistance on equality, fairness, and rules seems to be part of the autistic nature. To this day, someone violating a “rule” or even a “norm” can cause me to meltdown completely, however minor the rule might seem. You don’t break rules. They are rules.

    Peers, and educators, don’t seem to understand that reprimanding the autistic student is not logical or reasonable. We need structure, and rules are part of the structure we often like. Rules help us focus on other things. When people follow rules and norms, I can focus on the one or two new things being asked of me. It turns out, students with autism tell me the same thing. The rules allow them to focus on “bigger” concerns. But the moment a rule is broken, forget it. Focus is lost, panic sets in, and the impulse to flee or meltdown takes hold.

    If I’m told no one is allowed to do something, that rule applies to everyone. Yes, that’s rigid and legalistic, but that’s how my mind works. Telling me I need to process an entire additional “rulebook” of exceptions to rules? That’s just too much to handle. I can’t recall all the exceptions; it is hard enough to remember all the rules for daily life.

    Also, the notion of “aggression” or “anger” is starting to get annoying. I’ve also started to write about this: peers and educators label autistics as “aggressive” when we don’t even realize we’re talking loudly, moving suddenly, or taking objects we shouldn’t touch. Often, my impulse to restore order to a setting is called “aggressive” when it is nothing more than me trying to put things back in their places. No “anger” or “aggression” is intended, but I can’t always verbalize that I have to get things back to routine as soon as possible.

    The number one complaint from teachers is that “student X is aggressive” when they really mean the student speaks too loudly (“yells”), moves to quickly, or engages in repetitive behaviors that distract other people. I’ve had an otherwise great teacher ask me, “What happens when X decides to hit someone else instead of his own knees with his hands?” He’s not “hitting” himself, I had to explain. “Yes, he is,” the teacher responded, “and we can’t have that anymore. It’s violent.”

    The student in your example doesn’t have a deficit. He’s less flexible than others, but why is that a deficit? Is flexibility and spontaneous misbehavior the ideal? If so, that’s sad.

    • jholverstott

      April 18, 2011 at 11:19 AM

      I was just reviewing this post and your comment. The item about “aggression” rings very true with a perspective I had taken for many years on this issue. But, as you indicated, “teachers” are less likely to “tolerate” this behavior. Despite not having a clue about it. I guess it’s like not tolerating “shooting up” because it MUST be drugs. Could be insulin though.

  2. Jess Kahele

    March 19, 2011 at 6:51 PM

    I tagged you in a book meme. No need to participate if you don’t want to. 🙂 I’d love it if you stopped by my blog, I love reading your posts!


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