schools, discipline and children with asperger's

Kids with Aspergers and similar challenges often face punitive consequences for their behavior in school. They usually do what makes sense to them, which can be seen from the point of view of others as oppositional, disruptive and rule-breaking. Parents and schools must know the law protecting behaviors related to a disability.

An appropriate response requires that the school understand the inappropriate behavior in the context of a disability and how the child is processing the situation. A rigid behavioral plan intended to eliminate behavior through automatic application of increasingly negative consequences can have the impact of rigidity meeting rigidity, an obviously ineffective way to teach cognitive flexibility and adaptive skills for self-control.

Jack was in a behavior modification oriented therapeutic program, which called for escalating consequences for problem behavior. Jack was corrected for a minor behavior, burping in class. He was supposed to apologize, which seemed unfair to him. Since he didn’t apologize, he was given a second consequence. The situation escalated from there to Jack threatening to throw the art in the administrative office and the police being called.

Children with Aspergers (AS) and NLD often overreact to situations, as Jack did. Like Jack, they may interpret the actions of others as unfair, deliberately embarrassing or threatening and they can become agitated over the triggering situation.

Sometimes, like in Jack’s case, their emotional dyscontrol escalates to the point of becoming unsafe to themselves and others, by hitting, kicking or knocking over furniture, or by walking out of a building. These children have poor social judgment as well as poor emotional control, so they sometimes use threatening language without appreciating the consequences.

According to CT attorney Andrew Feinstein, it should be understood that misbehavior can be an inherent part of their disability for children on the autism spectrum, even if not diagnosed yet as a disability. Congress passed the predecessor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 to make it clear that children with disabilities could attend their neighborhood schools. In 1988, the Supreme Court made it plain that “Congress very much meant to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school” (Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 323 (1988). Simply put, disabled students are not supposed to be punished or expelled for their disability.

School responses to misbehavior of an AS student should be proactive rather than reactive. There should be understanding of the child’s perception of the social, environmental or academic demands that lead to the reactions. A good functional behavioral analysis (FBA) looks at the antecedents to the behavior as well as the effectiveness of consequences imposed. The FBA should result in a behavior intervention plan that both minimizes triggers and equips the student with adaptive skills. The reality, sadly, is that many school districts are incapable of administering an FBA, opting to fill out meaningless checklists instead.

Without a good FBA, schools simply punish outcomes. For example, Andrew had a behavior plan for punishment if he disrupted snack. It turned out that snack was immediately after math, and this boy had both fine motor skill problems and a rule for himself that he had to copy all the math problems off the board. The teacher erased the math before handing out snack. The only intervention needed was for the teacher to ask if everyone was finished.

In these cases of inappropriate consequences, the children experienced social humiliation and developed anticipatory anxiety about attending school. In describing to schools both problems with actions taken and the impact on the child, parents should be careful to communicate in written form so there is a clear record. Email works well because it dates responses.

Parents need to rely on mental health professionals to make an explicit connection between the child’s behavior and the disability. Schools should have training for school staff so that these connections are better understood and behavior plans are better devised. Increasingly, the challenge is insufficient resources.

None of us want children to be explosive, rude, and misinterpret the behavior of others. Yet, we have the right to demand that the school has sufficient understanding to reduce the triggers for misbehavior and to teach the student how to adapt.

Boy being punished photo available from Shutterstock