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We Must Stop the Shaming of Autistic Children in School

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I’m not gonna lie. It gets frustrating helping parents understand their autistic children. It’s frustrating because while parents are quick and eager learners, their efforts to share that knowledge with schools often yield no response, and then parents despair while the children continue to struggle.

The despair and frustration are not because we’ve been blessed with autistic children. It’s because of the ignorance of autism among our systems of support. Of these, none is so damaging to our children’s futures as our schools. Statistics tell the story: when our bright, verbal children grow up, they face unemployment rates of 70 percent or higher, social isolation, alarmingly high rates of anxiety and depression, and suicide rates several times higher than the general population.

What is happening?

I see it. We take perfectly beautiful children and from the time they start school, they learn that everything they do is considered “wrong,” “odd,” “weird” and difficult, and then every effort is made to exorcise the autism out of them.

Around the world, it seems that our education systems just don’t seem that interested in learning how to improve the school experience for our autistic children. The plan right now seems to be to catch kids being autistic and then shame them for it. Catch them making a social error, catch them responding too slowly or being clumsy or forgetting or just not knowing how to handle feelings, and then blame and shame the poor child instead of identifying the gap in their understanding or knowledge and teaching to it.

School boards often don’t provide the curriculum most bright, verbal autistic children need – and they sure are not familiar with the teaching approaches that can allow our children to maintain dignity as they learn to navigate the academic, social and sensory demands created for typical learners.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, then, to know that most teachers have not received much education around teaching autistic students. Attending a workshop or two doesn’t count, as any parent who is still confused by their own autistic children’s behavior after eight, 10, or 18 years of raising them can attest.

Let me be clear. I love teachers, my daughters are both teachers, and great teachers helped my son on the spectrum to get through the ordeal that was school. I know lots of teachers find a way to make a difference. However, too many teachers have been lead to believe, by inadequate training and from relying on Google, that tossing a kid a fidget and providing a visual schedule will immediately end any coping behaviors. When that doesn’t work, we all know what happens next.

The children get blamed for the failure of our education system. The truth is that autistic students are unique learners, and school ought to know what that means for the classroom. They claim they do. Do they? I don’t think so. When our schools blame and shame autistic children for not knowing how to respond or how to ask for help, deal with their emotions, navigate social situations, or be flexible in their thinking, I can only conclude that school cultures think it’s OK to shame our children for being autistic.

Here’s the crux of the problem, and a big piece of what schools are not addressing. It doesn’t matter how smart, chatty, or friendly an autistic child is – being autistic means you have a social communication condition. This means that by virtue of the autism identification, the child does have gaps in many or all of these areas: their understanding of social relationships, back-and-forth conversation, social approach, self-advocacy, sharing of experiences, non-verbal aspects of communication, initiating, nurturing and maintaining relationships.

When we tell our child’s school that our son or daughter is a learner on the autism spectrum, where the heck is the social communication curriculum tailored to address their needs? The curriculum that teaches them all the aspects of social understanding that just come intuitively to typically-developing children?

This curriculum I speak of would address the many receptive and expressive communication challenges of bright, verbal autistic children. Most educators have no idea what this might mean for kids who are diagnosed with Asperger’s/ASD Level 1 — those kids of average intelligence or higher who communicate with spoken language. If a child is what school determines to be “high functioning” (not my words, because functioning labels are inaccurate and harmful), school staff will often not understand the expressive or receptive challenges. They may even identify them as strengths in our children’s Individual Education Plans. Yikes. But receptive and expressive skills are challenges, not strengths, for most of our children. Hear me out.

Receptive language refers to the communication messages we receive. Though children with ASD-1 often have excellent vocabularies, this has little to do with the challenges they have in this area. To do well with receptive language, you would need to respond appropriately to what you are hearing or reading or seeing communicated from another person. What are some of the receptive communication challenges in ASD?

• Autistic kids might have receptive challenges that arise out of slow processing speed (they can’t keep up with the speed at which you are teaching), literal interpretation of language that can mean expectations are misunderstood, or anxiety that makes it impossible to pay attention to what is communicated.

• Trigger words like “No” can put an end to any rational conversation, and they may not be able to absorb subsequent words.

Executive function challenges can mean our children can’t remember what you just said (working memory), or cannot respond to what you just said (task initiation).

• Expressive language challenges. Many autistic children speak beautifully, especially on topics of interest, and so their expressive language challenges are not understood, recognized or supported either. Expressive communication involves one’s ability to communicate or “express” themselves to a communication partner. While our kids may be able to have a deep discussion on the transit system, “Fortnite,” social justice or anime art, they may not know how to have a successful back-and-forth conversation on any other topic.

• Deficits in expressive communication may mean they may launch into a monologue on an area of interest, dominating the conversation and not letting you get a word in edgewise. There may be no interest in asking you questions about topics you’d like to discuss. They need to be taught how to enter, start and share conversations, and be good listeners. When they are taught, they learn! Unfortunately, they are often not taught what they need to know in school, but are quickly reprimanded for being rude for the communication skills that come naturally to them. Shamed, you might say.

• They may speak well, but speak to enforce the rules with their classmates, or to “lawyer you into a corner” with an irrational argument that does not take into account the perspective of others. They may not know how much personal information to share, or that they ought to speak with deference to their elders, their school principal and their parents. These are all differences related to autism, and all skills that can be taught when we understand this and stop shaming the child.

• Those nonverbal communication skills difficulties that are a core part of the autism diagnosis come into play here. Many autistic children do not know what they are communicating with their body language, tone of voice, eye contact or gestures, and these skills are essential for effective expressive communication that conveys what you intend to convey. As a result, they get in trouble for being disrespectful and indifferent or failing to pay attention. Often, none of that is true, but the child is made to admit wrongdoing yet again.

• Other factors affect expressive communication in our children. Slow processing speed can mean autistic learner can take several seconds to respond when asked a question, and this can be interpreted as cognitive slowness. A teacher asks a question, the child fails to respond within a one or two second window, and the teacher may move on or caution the child to pay attention. The teacher may even insist that the child come and speak to them at the end of class, causing anxiety to spike. How can they ever articulate their experience of slow processing speed or anxiety? As young children that is often not possible. They just don’t know themselves well enough, and even when they do, communicating when anxious is another very challenging expectation.

Anxiety can also impact expressive language. When we are anxious, our thinking brain — our executive functioning skills — can go offline and our emotional brain kicks in. When we are anxious, we cannot pay attention, and we may not be able to provide the answer in that moment.

• Anxiety can also make it impossible to speak in certain situations. I teach in my work, often to very large groups of people. This is no problem at all when I am in charge of the information. However, in situations of high anxiety, I often cannot speak at all. The words simply will not come out. When an autistic person “goes non-speaking,” others can interpret this as a rude, inattentive or disinterested person.

• Anxiety can also make an autistic person say yes when they mean no or no when they mean yes — whatever makes you go away. They may agree they were wrong because they are overwhelmed and cannot find the words to tell you what happened. Agreeing can end the torment of the verbal debrief.

• Anxiety can also mean a child may be in fight, flight or freeze mode as fear hormones course through their bloodstream. As a result, instead of responding to you in socially accepted ways, they may engage in coping behaviors like running, lashing out or crying. Appropriate expressive communication goes out the window when the brain is sending the message: “Danger! Danger!”

• What happens when these behaviors occur? Our children are called immature, aggressive, rude and inconsiderate. Rarely does anyone take the time to identify the reason for the child’s distress, or to figure out how the adults in the room can do better next time. It seems far easier to blame and shame the autistic child than to provide lesson to teach emotional recognition and understanding, and the expressive skills to be able to ask for what they need.

• Our children may also struggle, as a result of core features of autism, to understand the Hidden Curriculum of social situations. These are the written rules typical people seem to pick up intuitively or from context, like lowering voice volume when walking into a hushed library, or taking just one piece of birthday cake so all classmates can have some. Each time they are not taught, in advance and with strategies tailored to the child’s learning profile, they are left vulnerable to getting caught in an embarrassing social error.

Schools rarely understand the importance of teaching what to expect and what is expected of the child in every new experience. The fallout? Our children make those social mistakes, and they are called out for them, shamed in front of their peers for being thoughtless, greedy and pushy. Again, the blame is placed squarely on the child rather than the educators who ought to know better.

The ability to form spoken words does not mean they can be accessed and used at the right time. When an autistic person cannot express themselves, there is often little time or consideration given to the myriad issues that may have caused the gaffe, gap or coping behavior. With as many as one in every 45 children between the ages of 3 and 17 having an autism diagnosis, there is no more grace period for schools to figure out how to help our children. Shame on them for contributing in a major way to the daunting stats surrounding the mental health and employment of autistic adults that we are all working so hard to reverse.

Getty image by WeeDezign.

Originally published: April 8, 2019
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