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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!