6 months ago



Ernest 157 skills

Ernest 157 skills available to him. He could basically protest and request—that was all. Imagine being deprived of all forms of communication except these two. If I’m feeling particularly mischievous and cranky at a school conference, I will suggest to teachers that they pretend they can communicate only two messages; they can protest something by saying ”no” or else request something by pointing. At all other times, they are to ignore the other person. Through this little thought experiment, adults soon learn to appreciate the implications of the communication disability that children with ASD have—that it involves both verbal and gestural forms of communication. It also helps them to be perhaps more sensitive to the messages that are being sent by the child. Very subtle nonverbal messages that signal mounting stress and frustration are sometimes overlooked. In Ernest’s case, these included making loud sounds, flapping his arms, slamming objects on the table, and a shortening of his attention span. Paying close attention to these signals allows an adult to intervene before the behavior escalates into a crisis situation. Intervention in this case involved moving on to another activity that Ernest found more enjoyable and then back to the more demanding task. This turned out to be a much more effective way of dealing with his behavior and led to more opportunities for learning in the classroom. Aggression is always a communication. It’s a signal of distress that cannot be communicated except through aggressive behavior, either because the child is nonverbal or because he does not understand the meaning of a social interaction. The key to treatment is either to provide the child with an alternative form of communication or else to intuit what the child is communicating and respond appropriately. When adults understand the function a disruptive behavior serves, why it occurs in the first place, and are able to change the environment so that it is less stressful, the child learns the value of communicating, and this awareness fosters the development of his own communication skills. Aggression is often reduced when children with autism learn to use augmentative forms of communication such as pictures, form boards, or signs. When Ernest went back to school in the fall, he had a new consultant who was quite knowledgeable about ASD. She suggested that the teachers use a picture exchange system as an augmentative form of communication. She also suggested that a visual schedule of the day’s activities be placed somewhere in the classroom so that the teacher could show Ernest it was time to move on to another activity. She also recommended that the first activity of the day be time on the computer

158 A MIND APART in class. That would ensure that Ernest looked forward to coming into class and was in a good mood at the start of the day. Difficult activities were interspersed with more fun activities, even if this meant that Ernest was on a different schedule than the other children in the classroom. If needed, when those nonverbal signals of frustration began to escalate, Ernest could have some quiet time, outside the classroom, for short periods of time, but then a quick return to classroom activities would ensure that he would not learn how to avoid schoolwork. No punishments were administered, and the criteria for suspensions were clearly spelled out. But once these initiatives were in place, there was never any need for suspension. I saw Ernest some time later, and it was clear that he had taken to the picture symbols readily. When he wanted to go outside, he simply retrieved the picture for outside and showed it to his parents or teacher. If going outside was impossible, Ernest was shown the appropriate sign, a simple “Stop” sign that he would have seen all the time with his parents driving to the bridge. He seemed to understand the meaning of ”no” perfectly well if it was presented to him in a visual format rather than in a verbal way. The teachers learned that he was not being stubborn when he did not respond to verbal requests but only that he was having trouble processing verbal instructions. The frequency of disruptive and more serious aggressive behavior decreased dramatically, and as a result, Ernest made much more rapid progress in that one year with a specific program for him than he did the years before, when suspension was a common occurrence. He started using the picture system at home as well; he started asking his parents for help more often; and he engaged in more social play with his younger sister, playing tag and hide and seek. Sometimes it is much more difficult to discern the reasons for disruptive behavior. Thought experiments that imagine the world from the perspective of the child with ASD are not always initially successful and may require diligent effort on everybody’s part. Even with the best of intentions, the mind of the child or adolescent with ASD can remain opaque, with troubling consequences, but to respond to disruptive behavior with suspension and “zero tolerance” is to completely misunderstand the meaning of having special needs, the responsibility we all share to preserve diversity. It is to exclude the child from a therapeutic setting, to expel the most vulnerable members of a community. It is to see “evil” where none exists, to be punitive where kindness and grace are required instead. To suspend diminishes both the child and the in-

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