3 weeks ago



Ernest 149 Ernest is

Ernest 149 Ernest is nonverbal and so has a difficult time communicating; he says nothing and never has. Some children who are unable to speak can compensate for their lack of words by signing, gesturing, or nodding and shaking their head. Ernest doesn’t use any of these forms of communication except to point at objects nearby. He’s quite independent and does not require his parents’ help for many of his needs. He can turn on the computer and the TV by himself and can get his own food from the refrigerator. He has little desire to communicate over and above his immediate needs and wants and, for the most part, is quite content with his life. If he is denied something important, he will cry and protest and rarely, if he is extremely frustrated (like when the river freezes over), he will bite his hand. His understanding of language is also quite delayed. He does not understand, for example, why he cannot have ten Popsicles, one after another, and will have a minor temper tantrum if his intake is limited. Ernest is enrolled in the local elementary school. He has a teacher’s assistant who spends all her time just working with him under the supervision of the classroom teacher. Unfortunately they have little understanding of ASD and no experience in dealing with someone like Ernest. In spite of the fact that Ernest came to school with a diagnosis of ASD, no individual treatment or educational plan designed specifically for his needs was in place. The current plan is based on special needs children in general and says nothing about autism. This is not an uncommon occurrence; all too often schools are ill prepared to deal with the challenges of a child with ASD. As a result, Ernest is expected to follow the standard classroom routines, like sitting quietly in circle time, moving easily from activity to activity, and listening to his teacher’s commands. The problem is that Ernest has a hard time sitting still (as his parents can testify and tried to tell his teachers), and he so loves the sandbox that he refuses to leave it and share it with another child. As a result, if he is not forcibly removed, he will monopolize the sandbox all day, not allowing any other child to share it and refusing to go on to other activities. If he is led away by the hand, he will hit the teacher and protest loudly. The other children look on in amazement, not understanding why he is so badly behaved. One day Ernest bopped the teacher in the nose. Well, to be truthful, he broke her nose. It all started when he wanted to go outside. After all, it was a lovely day, one of the first days of spring, and he was keen to go on the swings. The door to the yard was locked. He started to cry and bang on the door. His teacher went over to him and tried to reason with

150 A MIND APART him. But either he could not understand or he would not listen. She bent over to take his hand away from the door, and he bopped her one. The blood spurted from her nose and flowed down her expensive dress. She was crying and was very distraught, Ernest was screaming, and the entire class erupted in chaos. The teaching assistant had to go and get the principal to restore order. Some days later a conference was held with his parents, the teacher, and the principal. Ernst was suspended and was not allowed to return until he “understood” the consequences of what he had done. He simply “had to learn that he could not always do what he wanted.” He had to understand the meaning of the word “no.” Ernest’s parents were ashamed and humiliated. After all, what five-year-old gets suspended from elementary school? There was no one there to advocate for Ernest, to explain that he may not be able to understand the consequences of his behavior or to learn that he could not always do what he wanted. This happens all too often when assistance for special needs children is given along generic lines, without any definite attention to the needs imposed by specific disorders, such as autism. His mother had to find something else for him to do the rest of the time, which mostly meant plunking him in front of the TV or the computer so she could look after her other child. When he did return to school, the aggressive behavior seemed to increase initially, so Ernest spent more and more time at home or isolated from the other children in a room next to the principal, until thankfully the school year ended. That initial suspension ushered in a period of escalating behavioral difficulties leading to more and more suspensions. In effect, suspensions were being used as a behavior management tool. * * * There are probably few aspects of behavior in children with ASD that generate as much emotion and misunderstanding as disruptive behavior, which can include aggression toward others, yelling, selfinjury, not complying with requests to do something, running away, and so on. Disruptive behavior is typical of most children with ASD, at least at some point in their development. It’s true that some children tend to be passive and very compliant, but this is less common than children who show disruptive behavior in response to stress and frustration. When that frustration remains unchecked, or is not dealt with appropriately, aggression is the natural outgrowth. Aggressive behavior sets off a

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