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Aggression: Understanding Ben

  • Posted on April 5, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Kathleen and Kim wrote a post for The Autism Channel about aggression. I recommend reading the post. I also want to share some of my reactions, based on our experiences with aggression in our children, so please take a moment to hear a little about what we’ve been going through lately, which will help you understand why I found this post to be so important.

Ben is probably the easiest to explain. At the end of last year, he was having a very rough time in school. There was too much going on in his classroom and he couldn’t handle it. So, he “acted out” aggressively against staff and classmates. He brought his frustration and his behaviors home, too. Ben was predominantly non-verbal at this time, so “acting out” was one of the few ways he could communicate. Along with the aggression, he also covered his ears, pushed things away, and demonstrated other non-cooperative behaviors. Then, after several meetings, we decided to isolate him in a classroom of his own, away from all the overstimulation, and his behaviors improved dramatically.

At the time, the school he was in was not properly equipped for Ben’s needs, so the school system decided to place him with another teacher at another school—particularly with a teacher who was trained in “behaviors.” What we didn’t know at the time, what had not been fully explained, was that she was trained to work with children with behavioral problems, i.e. children who are emotionally disturbed or present other psychological needs that result in undesirable behaviors. In short, these children “act out” with undesirable behaviors that serve a different purpose and are not primarily a replacement for communication deficits. Please note, my point is not that these children are somehow inferior to Ben—all children deserve to have their needs met and many different kinds of children have many different kinds of needs and all of those needs are valid and worth meeting. My point, instead, is that, unbeknownst to me at the time, prior to Ben this teacher had only worked with one child with autism. And I think we all know what people say about knowing one child with autism. Neither her training nor her experience prepared this teacher to work with Ben.

Despite this, it went fine at first. She is a good teacher, and she cares very deeply for all her students, and she’s quite capable of putting up with what most of her students dish out. Also, it should be noted, that in those first few months Ben’s environment was very much what we’d been told to expect—most of the time he had the room to himself, and when he didn’t he had a space he could go to that he associated with being “his.” Unfortunately, the school and staff didn’t really understand Ben’s needs. Seeing the success of the strategies we recommended for Ben, including this special space, and facing an increased need from more of the teacher’s other students (who are pulled out of regular education classrooms when their behavior requires it) who now needed to be in “Ben’s” classroom, the staff started sharing “Ben’s” space with other students.

Now, if you’re a parent of a child with autism, particularly a child with strong sensory needs who is easily overstimulated, one who also has minimal social and communicative skills, I bet you can guess where this is going. Once the other children began “encroaching on Ben’s space,” the behaviors started up again. Again, after many meetings, we concluded it would be necessary to isolate him during his academic periods, thus re-establishing the environment Ben was supposed to have in the first place (as far as I understood things. This school and this teacher were supposed to understand and be able to meet Ben’s needs all along, which was the whole reason I agreed for him to be moved to a new school! Yet, for several months, that was not what happened. In short, for two years in a row, we’ve had to go through similar processes to “figure out” Ben’s needs based on Ben’s behaviors, because when Ben’s needs are not met he “acts out” with aggressive behaviors.

Ben is not a bad kid. He’s stubborn and strong willed, but that’s not bad. Ben is also working within social and communication deficits, so he doesn’t know how to express himself in constructive, non-violent ways. He doesn’t know how to say “get away from me” or “leave me alone” or “that’s too much noise” or “this place is way too busy for me to concentrate,” let alone the more polite versions of these phrases. He can either endure it—but he’s a mite bit too stubborn and strong-willed for that. Or he can express himself physically.

I don’t say this to excuse his behavior, but merely to explain them. Ben can’t change things for himself. So, we have to adapt to Ben’s needs. If we succeed, then Ben’s behavior decrease, which allows us the opportunity to discover additional unmet needs. If we keep it up, then the behaviors will be eliminated because he doesn’t need them anymore. This would be especially true if we took the opportunity of the “good times” to develop his social and communication skills to the point that he has alternatives to aggression.

Ben is one example of aggression in a child with autism. Ben’s is a fairly straightforward case, meaning the mechanics of the behavior and the purposes of the behavior are fairly simple. This does not, however, mean it’s an easy situation. It’s not. Ben has only a limited number of effective behaviors to work with to express all of his frustrations and distresses and stressors and needs. Figuring out Ben’s needs and how to meet those needs is a process involving a lot of trial and error, and this process also relies heavily on the understanding of the adults around him. It’s a long process, but with a good prospective outcome. But Ben is only one example. I have two more children who struggle with aggression, which I’ll discuss next week.

For now, check out the post over at The Autism Channel. It’s worth reading!

2013: Where the Boys Are

  • Posted on January 7, 2013 at 9:00 AM

So, to start off the New Year, let’s take a quick look at where the boys are now and where I hope to see them going in the coming year.

Willy: Now

  • Willy is in last year of middle school.
  • His medication seems stable and his seizures are under control.
  • His mood is not stable and we’re looking into treating him for depression and/or anxiety.
  • Willy has some dreams of what he wants to do as an adult, but we haven’t made any concerted efforts to ensure he’ll be able to pursue his dreams, other than providing him with necessary accommodations to access his scholastic curriculum.

Willy: By Next Year

  • By this time next year, Willy will be in high school and I plan to make the transition as easy and successful for him as we possibly can.
  • I hope we can keep his seizures under control.
  • I hope we can stabilize his mood and help restore his self-confidence, his sense of self-worth, and his enthusiasm for life.
  • I hope we have a plan in place that will enable him to pursue the dreams he has for his adult life.

Alex: Now

  • Alex started middle school this year and seems to be adjusting reasonably well.
  • Alex is going to be assessed for possible seizure activity.
  • Alex will be assessed for assistive technology to help him communicate more complex feelings and thoughts.
  • Alex’s weight, eating, and growth are becoming worrisome again.
  • I have no idea how to help prepare Alex for life as an adult, but I believe that pursuing his art is a worthy goal and have been making small strides in getting him more exposure to art mediums.

Alex: By Next Year

  • By this time next year, I hope that we will have been able to meet Alex’s health-related needs, whether that means treating seizures or other neurological conditions and/or getting him back to the Feeding Clinic (if we can’t get his weight up and steady soon).
  • I hope to have a communication system in place that will empower Alex to communicate what’s going on in his head successfully.
  • With the communication component in place, I hope to begin discussing with Alex (instead of trying to decide on his behalf) what he wants his adult life to look like.

Ben: Now

  • Ben moved to a new elementary school this year to be placed in a program (special education environment) that was supposed to better meet his needs, yet we’re seeing a very similar cycle of escalation that shows us (at least me) that his needs are not being met.
  • Ben’s communication skills seemed to be developing at a quicker pace earlier this year, but now he seems to be sliding back into some of his more non-verbal habits.
  • Ben’s weight and health seem to be good overall, and even his sleep cycle is becoming more normalized.

Ben: By Next Year

  • By this time next year, I hope that we have, as a team, figured out what all of Ben’s educational, sensory, and behavioral needs are and how to meet them.
  • I hope to get his aggressive behaviors under better control by meeting his needs.
  • I hope we can get his language development and learning back on track.

So, that sounds like a lot. These are some pretty big issues to deal with, but I think with concerted effort and a supportive, capable team for each child, we can reach these goals and discover new and better goals to meet along the way.