The Problem of Dealing with Autistic and Neuro-Diverse Students
Our focus has always been on helping teachers deal with students with severe dysfunctional behaviours. It is our strong belief that all these students with such behaviours act in such ways because of no fault of their own. The vast majority are the victims of:
- Parenting that has been abusive, or neglectful which results in profound damage to the brain
- Inappropriate modelling, where children learn to behave in a fashion that works in a dysfunctional household however, when they use those behaviours in a school, presumably functional classroom that behaviour is unacceptable.
- Atypical neural construction of the brain. These are the psychotic, schizophrenic, autistic, etc. children who do not interpret the environment as the rest of us.
In all cases it has not been the child’s fault, their behaviours have been put on them either by a fault in nature or the intent of their early childhood carers. However, most of our work is based on the parenting, either the abuse and/or neglect or the inappropriate modelling. In these cases there can be a notion that the students have a rough recognition of the external environment similar to what we would interpret. Of course the attention to detail and the responses will be shaped by their belief systems which are at odds with our own (assuming we are ‘functional’).
Dealing with the last group of children is not so straightforward, for instance psychosis is a term used to describe when people lose some contact with reality. Common symptoms of psychosis are hearing voices or having strong beliefs that are not shared by people within your community. Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication. The problem for the non-specialist teachers who have to deal with these children in a mainstream classroom is they have no way of anticipating the reactions to given situations. I fully accept there are many excellent specialist teachers and programs that can make a significant difference but I have yet to see any evidence where these programs are successfully used for integration for students at the severe end of their disorder.
I recently came across an article by Alexandria Robers from the University of Minnesota who addresses this problem for the autistic student. In the article ‘Radical Behaviourism’ often referred to as applied behaviour analysis (ABA) which is a popular but controversial approach for working with autistic children. In general, the principles behind ABA are:
- Behaviours are affected by their environment.
- Behaviours can be strengthened or weakened by its consequences.
- Behaviour changes are more effective with positive instead of negative consequences.
The controversy comes because many see this approach as a form of classical and/or operant conditioning where the stimulus-response is used to modify behaviour through reward or punishment or as we prefer to refer to as consequences.
I have no real issue with the use of consequences but there is a point of difference between what the critics of ABA, Robers and ourselves.
The critics see consequences through the eyes of B. F. Skinner and his colleagues where behaviours are forced onto students without any consideration to emotions and beliefs. This implies that the students are powerless, they have no choice. I would contend that none of us have a ‘choice’ in our early childhood when we are unable to make a choice and our suite of feelings and beliefs are being formulated; this is the construction of our sense of self! In fact, in later years those feelings and beliefs dictate our behaviour when confronted with situations that are the same or similar to those when our sense of self is formed. Our behaviour is determined, there is no choice at the moment. I will expand this concept later in the essay.
Robers takes an interesting view on the point of consideration of the consequences. She argues that the conventional view about the effectiveness of consequences on shaping behaviour is that it is an action based on the antecedent conditions, that when we are faced with a set of circumstances, we will act to protect ourselves from the consequence or to seek /obtain that consequence. Her view, I suspect influenced by her work with autistic students is that all behaviours are chosen specifically to get the consequence the student wants.
She presents a model she refers to as SEAT:
- S – the student is seeking sensory input and for the autistic child this may be a repetitive movement
- E – this is to escape, to avoid different situations they do not enjoy
- A – This attention seeking behaviour, these are efforts to engage with others.
- T – This is the seeking of tangibles, access to activities in which they want to participate.
I really have a problem seeing any point to this approach, the thesis is that the behaviour is designed to get a consequence but surely that consequence is to satisfy a need which is the antecedent condition!
I indicated above I would revisit the notion of determinism the contrary view of free-will. I suspect that those critics of ABA who lament the child’s lack of choice assumes they have free will. I would contend that they don’t and nor does any other child at the time they are confronted with a situation; but determinism is not inevitability.
Those who have followed us know our model, the establishment of a positive relationship and the construction of clear expectation and a structured environment. Our view is that our sense of self, our feelings and beliefs that drive our behaviour have been formed in a specific environment. If these behaviours are dysfunctional for anyone then we need to change the environment, have alternate clear expectations and persistent and consistent consequences for behaviours that are driven by needs so the children can learn other ways to behave.
Our model is straight forward, we understand that all behaviour is driven by deficits in our security, our homeostasis. We all learn how to satisfy those needs in the environment in which we live. If the environment is dysfunctional the behaviour will mirror that dysfunctionality. To change a child’s dysfunctionality we must change the environment. This sounds simple but it is not so easy for the following reasons:
- The children described at the beginning of this essay participate in our schools at a huge disadvantage through no fault of their own.
- Teachers are ill-equipped to deal with these kids in a classroom where 29 other students are entitled to the teacher’s attention.
- There is an absence of mental health professionals to assist these kids at school.
- There is little recognition and even less attention paid to the issue of dysfunctional behaviour in schools by governments and their bureaucratic staff.
However, despite the difficulty, you the teacher may be the only chance these kids have, and you will make a difference. Robers refers to her 4C’s control, consequences, consistency and compassion and I can’t disagree with these!