First published on January 16, 2012.
Last week a 13-year-old boy with autism was arraigned on battery charges in Florida. Apparently, the boy threw a pair of headphones across a classroom and clocked his speech teacher in the head. She responded by pressing charges. The parents argue that the teen (who it seems also has mild intellectual disability) cannot be held responsible for his outburst because he was annoyed by another student talking out of turn. The SLP, who has not talked to the media, must feel as though turning to the justice system is somehow warranted—a choice that makes me wonder about the availability of other avenues of support for the student or for her.
This incident illustrates how polarized thinking about autism and behavior can be. And then there’s the increasing number of blogs and posts taking the viewpoint that all autistic behavior should be cherished and celebrated as representative of personality. That to do anything less is to devalue our children, to wish they were not who they are, to squelch individualism.
In my opinion, all of these perspectives are missing the behavioral boat. We need to be having a conversation about how parents and teachers help children with autism learn to self-manage their behaviors. Moving from childhood to adulthood is for everyone—autistic or not—all about learning to govern one’s impulses and choices. None of us gets to do whatever he pleases and function in society. Taking the perspective that a child with autism should not or cannot be asked to self-regulate implies the assumption that people on the spectrum are incapable of learning self-control. And isn’t this precisely the stereotype we’re fighting? The one that keeps our adults from being employed, from finding housing, and from being welcomed into community settings?
Part of the problem is that we seem to want to lump all autistic behavior into one basket. It’s either all good or all bad. And then our responses become extreme. We need to start making more careful, individualized determinations about behavior. In other words, for this particular individual, which behaviors need changing and what are realistic expectations regarding self-management at this time? This is precisely what we do with our neurotypical kids. We target problem behaviors based on who they are as individuals, and what their specific needs are to function better in their world. We push our typical kids to achieve their personal best. Shouldn’t we have the same confidence in our kids with ASD? We must not confuse different expectations with lowered ones.
As parents and teachers, we must first determine which behaviors are truly problematic. Problematic behaviors interfere with successful functioning in some way. If a behavior harms someone, it is pretty obviously problematic. But it’s also problematic if it keeps the child from being available to learn or if it gets in the way of wellness—for the individual, the family, or the community. Plenty of “autistic” behaviors, although seemingly unusual, are not interfering behaviors. We need to learn to discriminate—as parents, as teachers, as community members—between the two. And then we need to focus on teaching kids with ASD how to better handle the problematic behaviors themselves so that other people don’t feel obliged to.
Teaching self-management means that as parents and teachers we need to take the time to understand what’s driving problematic behavior. Often this requires help from behavioral or mental health professionals. And then we need to help the individual discover alternative, more successful behaviors whenever possible. Here’s the thing: You can’t teach absence of behavior. So simply trying to get someone to stop doing something doesn’t work. You need to help them find a better option to meet the need the problem behavior is addressing.
We also need to learn—and then help our kids learn—how to get in front of a problematic behavior. We tend to operate in crisis management mode, especially in school settings. We try to manage a meltdown once it’s kicked into high gear, as opposed to teaching a young person to be aware of the signs that loss of control is on the way and what to do to help change the situation. And we really shoot ourselves in the foot when we focus on the non-problematic self-soothing behaviors that are occurring instead of analyzing what’s up with the “stimming.” Sometimes it’s precisely when we stop the self-soothing that we get a more intrusive, dangerous action.
Teaching our children with autism self-management skills—impulse control, frustration tolerance, endurance—matters. The ability to self-manage can be the difference between employment and unemployment, between residential options and nowhere to call home. Sometimes it can even mean the difference between freedom and a jail cell. We as a community need to demonstrate how to be thoughtful about the behaviors that are often part and parcel of autism. Which means that we need to acknowledge complexity of behavior and stop looking for easy answers. It also means avoiding rhetoric that fosters the notion that people with autism should not be expected to change their behaviors, regardless of the consequences of those behaviors. Maturity for all children—autistic or not—means learning to sometimes take oneself in hand. Even if the hand is flapping.