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May 11, 2015

Q: My son has ASD and is being sent to in school suspension (ISS) for "meltdowns" (screaming and throwing things) that seem to happen when he refuses to work and his teacher insists that he do. He thinks he has to do things perfectly and this causes him a great deal of stress when doing work. I want to advocate for him because his teacher thinks he is doing all of this "on purpose". Should I get an official advocate? What can I tell them to do instead?

A: Since I don't know your son, I will offer some generic ideas that I hope will be helpful. Navigating the school years is not easy and you will need support along the way. I think the very best first step is to work with the school district. If you can find your support from within, then you can create your son's advocacy group from those supportive folks at the school. Feel free to share this information with the school team, it might lead to some good discussion.

1. Here are some good resources to share on the topic of using suspension (and ISS) that might add helpful information to the discussion of "why not".
This webpage outlines a training called Masked and Misunderstood: High functioning Individuals with ASD. The training was developed by Dr. Aspy and Dr. Grossman from Plano, Texas and would directly address your concerns.

The CASEL program has a lot of research demonstrating how a school can lower violent behavior, eliminate the use of suspension and increase academic scores through a school wide curriculum of social and emotional learning.

Here are some thoughts about "what instead".

2. Dr. Ross Greene points out that the words we use to describe the behavior we see, leads us to the interventions we choose to use. If someone says that your son is acting out "on purpose" that creates a focus that leads the person down a pretty negative and blaming path. As educators, it is much more helpful to determine why he is behaving this way, as a matter of fact it's the law. Once the team has determined "why" he is refusing to work or losing control of his emotions, then you need to go a step further to get at the actual teaching part.

3. If your son graduates from the K-12 system and he is unable to control his emotions; understand how to negotiate difficult social situations; or establish healthy relationships, he will have great difficulty succeeding at life, despite his IQ (Daniel Goleman). Directly teaching skills needed to support his autism is what I recommend. The inability to control fear, anxiety and other big emotions is referred to as a problem of Emotional Regulation and it is very much a part of autism. This is not a character flaw but a developmental delay, and one that can be addressed through teaching.

If a child over the age of 7 is having "meltdowns" then there is a problem with emotional regulation. He is not able to identify big emotions within himself before they take over and then he has difficulty calming him self and recovering from the incident. The educational team should address this proactively, as a part of the educational plan, in the IEP. Anxiety is part of the autism profile because autism is a social disorder. Whether the disability is visually obvious or not, whether he has an IQ or 90 or 140, if he has autism, social environments will be difficult to handle (by definition) and school is a massively social environment. If you think in terms of anxiety, you can come up with all kinds of relaxation ideas to infuse throughout his day (before, during and after school). This might be as simple as a stretching program before school, a muscle relaxation and visualization break during school, and a tai chi class after school). Many researchers (Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson and Daniel Siegel) support using relaxation to support someone who has problems controlling their emotional responses. The skill of relaxation is a life long skill that can increase your son's chances of handling frustrating situations across his lifetime.

Perfectionism is another common trait in autism. This might stem from not being able to "predict" people (a hallmark of social cognition which is part of the developmental delay in autism). This failure to predict can lead to a lot of unexpected mistakes and failures across the person's life. Perfectionism can develop due to an anxiety driven, biological need to "get it right". . If it is determined that he is refusing because he is afraid to fail, then the team should explore that part of his autism. If he knew absolutely every answer on the test yesterday, but then today he read a question and the wording confused him for some reason, he might have put his head down on his desk and withdrawn in an attempt to avoid the big anxiety that causes a loss of control. Guessing can be really hard for a student who demonstrates perfectionism. One idea is to have him take tests or complete assignments with adaptations. An example might be telling him to answer only the questions that he knows 100%, then have him sit down with a teacher, therapist or aide and practice "guessing" at the answers he is unsure of. This gives him safe practice guessing and the adult is able to assess what he actually knows and where he might need more instruction. Avoid blaming words in this scenario, teach him that his reluctance to guess is a reaction to his autism and anxiety but that it is going to hinder his success long term and so working through the anxiety needs to be part of his education. Just a skill he needs to learn (like reading or math) to help him become an independent adult.

Even if using punishment stops a behavior in the moment, it does not teach how to do things differently and in different environments. It does not teach the student about himself or how to successfully make positive changes. The educational team needs to have this discussion.




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