1. I worked with a high functioning autistic student who struggled at school. Although he was on track academically, he had a miserable experience socially. Trevor was the football fanatic I described in a recent post. No matter the cost, he wanted to play football with his classmates. One classmate often tripped him just when he was about to catch the ball or score. Not only did Trevor get upset about losing, he was even more angered by the injustice of the situation. I have seen this heightened sense of “right and wrong” in a number of ASD kids. They have often learned social skills through demonstration of, and by following, sets of rules. When those rules are not followed, and especially if these kids personally suffer from that inequity, they may respond catastrophically. When words did not work, Trevor then physically threatened the other kid, although he never actually touched him.
The playground supervisor’s reaction was to warn and eventually blame Trevor. From a distance, she could see Trevor’s “in your face” body language. The other kid was backing away. Trevor was benched, sent to the office, or sent to me.
The same dynamics occurred in his classroom. Other kids were adept at pushing Trevor’s buttons with just a gesture or sound. In his already heightened state of social anxiety, Trevor was a fuse just waiting to be lit. I did not condone Trevor’s verbal outbursts. He would yell, “Stop looking at me!” and interrupt the teacher while she was trying to focus the class on math. I did understand his teacher’s frustration. BUT I also wanted Trevor’s teacher and assistant to understand his perspective. His outbursts were never random; they were always triggered by a perceived threat from others. As the year progressed, he became increasingly unable to manage his responses. He was caught in a vicious cycle: other kids could easily set him off, the adults were fearful of his outbursts, he was blamed for losing self control, and he was also terrified of his own temper. We had some high points, such as when the teacher allowed Trevor to use a classroom space for calming down. She also encouraged him to use his “plans” (pocket-sized books I created with strategies for calming). But both those two options became “punishments.” Trevor felt humiliated when the teacher demanded, “Get your book,” as other kids snickered. That calming down space became a “time out” for him when the teacher wanted him out of sight, so instead of cooling off, Trevor became more frantic. Eventually, I would be called to his classroom. As soon as he saw me, he’d relax. He was out of the traumatic environment and would be able to communicate his strong feelings safely.
2. Here’s another scenario. I worked with a young black boy who was not labeled at all. However, he was considered the most disruptive kid in his class and the local school motto was “This kind should be with you.” I added him to my groups of six kids (quite a bit easier than a group of 21?) and it took two weeks for him to be “socialized” and under voice command. He was actually a delight to teach. I had already started observing him in class, since I needed to reverse his decline there. As soon as I walked in the door, a number of kids would scream out, “David! Mrs. So-and-So is here for you!” I shook my head, gave them a signal to be silent, and sat down to watch. As I observed, I wondered why David had been selected as “the kind who should be with me.” I was elbowed and splashed with water by students who thought it was amusing. I watched as kids threw materials, pushed one another, and were generally out of control. “My” David looked overwhelmed. Eventually, he shrieked above the clamor and received the teacher’s routine lecture on following rules.
I have to admit that at one point, I also lost it in David’s classroom. The kids were supposedly lining up for lunch. David was doing fine, but the rest of the kids were pushing, yelling, laughing, and crashing. All the while, their teacher was ineffectually talking about how they should act. Without asking, I used my teacher voice, got them in line, and took them to the cafeteria myself. I simply could not bear to see them act so outrageously. David was the canary in the mine for that class. Was his race a factor? He was one of four black kids in the class. I eventually ended up with one of the other black kids, too.
Have I effectively changed some of these perceptions and prejudices? Yes, but that’s another post. Stay tuned!