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You Can’t Punish Away Autism

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When Connor was little, I remember trying to implement time-out when he was naughty.  See, Super Nanny said that you would have to put them back in the time-out spot, over and over, until they stayed, and you had to be consistent with it or they would never learn.

For two solid hours, I repeatedly put Connor back in his time-out spot, only to have him immediately jump right back up again.  My lower back muscles were screaming, and there was an endless loop of verbal abuse playing in my head. “Super Nanny said you have to stick with it, or they win.  How much do I suck as a mom when I can’t get my three-year-old to comply after two hours?  I’m failing miserably, why won’t this work?”

It all made sense, a year later, when we received the diagnosis.  And yet it’s still so easy to slip into the mindset of “why can’t I make my kid behave?

We’ve come a long way, and understand so much more, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still make those same mistakes almost every day.  As hard as it is for us, as the parents, it is even harder to get others to understand positive behavioral support, and harder still to get them to follow it.

Last week, I arrived to pick up Connor from the after-school program.  He was sitting in the time-out chair.  The director told me that he was having a great day, and they rewarded him with being line leader when coming back from recess, and holding the door open for his friends to enter the cafeteria.  While holding the door, with his backside against it, he bumped the door back and forth with his butt.  Before she could catch up to him to tell him to stop, he bounced it enough that the tension lever at the top broke.   The vice principal was called, and he came to take a look at it so he could call someone to fix it.  And Connor sat in time out.

In a voice so low it was almost a whisper, I told her I didn’t agree with the time-out.  He was rewarded for good behavior, then he did something that wasn’t malicious, or meant to cause harm, and was punished for it.  He was punished for an accident.  If it had been me, I explained, I would have enrolled him in being part of the solution, and asked him to help by talking to the vice principal about how to get the door fixed.  End of story.

And then I said, “we’re damaging this child.”  Her eyes got big, and we both turned to look at Connor, sitting at a table about 15 feet away, and he was sobbing uncontrollably.  Tears welled up in the director’s eyes.

We left and Connor had a 40-minute meltdown of hysterical crying.  As much trouble as he gets into, as often as he refuses to comply with directions, as often as he is lippy and sassy, he was so hurt and crushed by what happened because it was an accident.  It was an innocent playful thing that he did, that we’ve all done at one time or another, and it quickly escalated into yet more punishment.

And yet again, I feel powerless.  No matter how much information I come armed with, no matter how many times I explain positive reinforcement, it doesn’t matter if they don’t use it.  I’m acutely aware that the program isn’t staffed for providing intensive, direct support for one child.  But I’m still left with the question that if 1 in 88 kids are diagnosed on the spectrum, why don’t programs recognize that and staff accordingly?

It seems like putting my child in a “special” care situation is the only alternative, and probably the preference for staff that would rather not deal with the challenge.  But if my son was in a wheelchair, I can’t help but think that he would be accommodated.

When it comes to academics, the school pushes for him to learn, keep up, follow the rules, master the routine, because he needs “to learn it now because he will be in school for many more years.”  But when it comes to being part of the group in a social context, there is no emphasis on supporting him in the appropriate way to prepare him for later years.

The school year is drawing to a close in a few weeks.  I could look for other after-school options for next school year, but I think we will continue in the same program.  If I want integration and inclusion to be more than just words, I have to keep showing up every day…like ABA, perhaps my consistent, positive approach will eventually reap results.

Because I know my kid won’t be the last one with challenges to be in their program.  There will always be another.



About Flannery

Kid, husband, dogs, my mother, full-time job, maximum stress, minimal relaxation...sooner or later I had to vent. AND we moved from California to Texas. I could start a whole other blog about that.

36 responses »

    It was like you were talking about my kid. I have these conversations with school all. the. time. And I shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t. But I feel like if I don’t have them consistently, then they’ll forget.
    I’m glad you said something. And I hope the rest of the year goes okay.

  2. Poor Connor, that was a completely unfair punishment. What were they even thinking?

    I found out yesterday that my son (almost 16) has been excluded from his SN school for 30 days… because he had a meltdown and six members of staff jumped on him and he went crazy. Wouldn’t any of us go crazy with six people pinning us down? He must have been terrified!

    R doesn’t live with me because I’m disabled, so I don’t get to learn of these things first-hand. I’m calling the school tomorrow and demanding to know why my son – who was probably suffering sensory overload – was treated so abominably. Also, why did the school not contact me? I had to find out from my mother and then his foster father had to deal with me being upset. Not the way to go.

    • I hate to hear about kids being “taken down”. Interventions need to be in place before it escalates to that point. Good luck, I hope it all works out.

  3. This is something my husband has to learn, too. We had it out last night over the fact that you can’t punish away Autism, and just bc he THINKS K should know something, doesn’t mean she DOES. And that Autism is a lifelong thing, so get used it it, buddy, or find a different arrangement. And you are right, a wheelchair would be accommodated. A child with Down Syndrome would be accommodated. Anything where you can SEE the disability would be accommodated. That is why our kids get F’d over all the time. Until places make it mandatory that all staff have training, nothing will change.

  4. Poor, poor Connor. People believe those with Autism do not have feelings, that they are almost robotic. My son, and yours, feel things very, very deeply at times. I am very sorry that this struggle continues, that Connor experienced that time-out, and the subsequent meltdown. Big, big hugs to all.

    • I’ve said many times how Connor doesn’t always act like it, but he’s taking things in, feeling them, and sooner or later they come out in a flood.

      I assured him that it was an accident, he shouldn’t feel so terrible, that he should just learn from it. And I rewarded him with TV time to calm down. But yes, the struggle will continue. Live to fight another day.

  5. I don’t know why when I hear stuff like this I’m surprised. I shouldn’t be but I am. It’s almost as if because they can’t see the disability it doesn’t exist and they try to will normalcy on our kids. It does more harm than good. They only truly understand it when it blows up in their faces. I wish it didn’t but it does.

    • I know, I’m always surprised too, then I feel like an idiot because I should have known better. But hey, even if I can’t change the system, I’m at least going to beat the hell out of it and make some big dents.

  6. I have come to the conclusion that unless you have a kid with Autism, then you don’t understand how typical forms of punishment just don’t work. It’s sad that schools aren’t taking more time to learn about the unique differences of these kids and how they can better accommodate them.

  7. I was drawn to your post for a few reasons. First, I agree with you that you can’t punish the autism out of them, and have to remind family of this more than I would like. The school was wrong to put Connor in time out for an accident. I am finding more often then I would like that while I have tried to trust the school, and Special Ed professionals, they do not always know what is best in handling difficult behavior. This was not an example of difficult behavior, no child should have been put in time out for what was clearly a mistake.

    On another note, for us, we have had to find somemethods in order for our boys, who are severe, to listen to me in order to be safe and to stop over the top behaviors. I was convinced that they could not learn how to stay in time out, but I was thankfully proven wrong. It is difficult, and I have parent training with behavioral professionals, but it has proven to be effective most of the time. And I don’t use time out for things that I know are beyond their control. But it can work. I do whole heartedly agree that at age 3, if I had stuck with the super nanny version of time out (and yes, I tried) it would have (and did) fail. They were not cognitively ready for it at that time, but at age 5 1/2 it started to sink in.

    Thanks for sharing. ;@)

    • I hear you. And we do use time out at home on occasion, but I try to be really aware of whether it’s something that was beyond his ability to control, or a purposeful instance of misbehaving.

  8. I really do love your approach.
    Punishing for an accident is just terrible and the fact that he was having a great day that day and then this accident… it is just so wrong. Wrong message all the way around

  9. confessionsfromhh6

    Even the professionals don’t see it. We had to spend 4 years of wasted money and time in a therapy program with a wrong diagnosis for our oldest who missed out on so many crucial services they won’t prescribe once the child is 8, 9, 10, etc. I finally said, “You’re going to have to admit at some point that you’re wrong, because we’re doing EVERYTHING you want us to, and after 4 years, we should see SOME improvement.” The therapist/psych wouldn’t, so I sought help elsewhere.

    Not seeing something tangible to remind people that our kids are different, like a wheelchair, makes it all the more challenging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told this year, “If I hadn’t read his paperwork, I’d never know he had a diagnosis.” Yet, these are the same teachers and staff who treat my child as a “problem child,” when his difficult behaviors do emerge and could very easily be avoided if they’d follow the damn IEP. Sorry. I got on my soapbox.

    • Ugh, that’s so frustrating. And it makes you just want to die because you can’t get that time back. The “higher functioning” kiddos have a rough road, because nobody sees the disability. That’s why we have to constantly remind people and keep making demands. It sucks, I’d rather not, but I do.

  10. Here’s what you said, Flannery, that made me want to pound the table with my fist and shout; “DAMN IT, YES”: “But I’m still left with the question that if 1 in 88 kids are diagnosed on the spectrum, why don’t programs recognize that and staff accordingly?”
    Where I am now, the local school board is the 3rd lowest funded in the province. Does this make sense? I’m pissed after reading this, because they’ve eliminated a lot of the special care services there used to be, in favour of integrating almost ALL the kids into the mainstream, which is fine, but have a little something there for them when they get there, won’t you?

    I’ve said and thought it a million times: there isn’t much real empathy. Some kid, fresh out of university, who has no kids of her own, and shows up with the soothing voice, and the brain full of jargon, is not necessarily the best person for our kids.

    • I so agree. There are way too many “newbies” that are responsible for children. And I get so tired of it, I really do. But I just can’t stop…I want to, but something just won’t let me.

  11. that’s weird. WordPress has just congratulated me for becoming a follower of your blog. Ah well. Too tired to argue.

  12. You have way more control than I would’ve had in that situation. You put my heart on the floor with that story. Connor was doing something any kid could have done. The point is that it was an accident and he NEVER should have been put in time-out, but I don’t think any child should have been put in a time out for that situation. That was a stupid mistake.

    I hope that the director whose eyes welled up was the one who put him there and not the Vice Principal because she (?) seemed to show some remorse. If it was the VP, then I have no doubt you’ll make sure he gets the message loud and clear too.

    I have you on my pedestal today for riding their behinds and sticking it out! You are blazing the trail for all of us and hopefully we will all do likewise. xoxo to Connor – please send him big hugs from me!!

  13. YES! We ARE damaging these kids! I have had some similar experiences this year. I had to talk to the teacher repeatedly for making Danny miss recess so he could finish his work. Danny was so stressed already and hates missing recess and he tries so hard to get his work done. Why should he be punished for being unable to finish his work? He needs accommodations, not punishments. Drives me nuts. But good for you for standing up for your son!

  14. I have just moved my son to a different (mainstream) school, because of issues like this – e.g. punished for saying things he didn’t understand were unkind. I begged them to explain things to him, rather than punish him; but he would come home time after time saying he’d been “punished for *nothing*”. This was very damaging to his self-confidence, as he is a passive child who (when he thinks about it) doesn’t want to hurt anyone or anything. He *hates* it when he’s upset other people.

    I was certainly messed up as a kid, for similar reasons. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Keep going. Keep explaining. Keep being positive.

  15. This has made me feel angry! I am studying to be a classroom assistant and I want to work with children with additional needs. I promise to try and understand autism and your blog will help me a great deal. Thank You

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It means the world to me to know that someone will take this and apply it in the classroom. And thank you for making such a wonderful, rewarding career choice!

  16. We are soooo right there with you on this one. A big part of the reason we have been loking for a new school for Little Miss is because of the disciplinary treatment we are seeing at her current school. She is constantly missing play time, recess, an opportunities to participate in the classroom because of her “stubbornness” (teacher’s word, not mine). Instead of practicing her social skills on the playground, she’s repeating opening/closing her backpack. Instead of learning to share at centers, she’s re-doing her craft project…. There’s got to be a better way.

  17. Thank you for posting this! I am never sure when to complain at school, because it seems like I’d be complaining nonstop, but I look up to you for speaking up for your child. Time out doesn’t work with kids on the spectrum, at least with my kid. Arrrgh! Anyway, just wanted to say thumbs up, and I understand.

  18. Poor Connor! What a lousy end for a good day! But at least it seems like you got through to the director, thanks to your constructive approach.

  19. This will not be popular — but he deserved to be punished. Conor broke the door, and, ummmm, destroying school property, even inadvertently isn’t the sort of behavior that should be reinforced.


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