About Me

A couple of years ago, I found my autistic child locked in a small cold cement cell at his school. The cell had no windows, no furniture, and was slate gray with low lighting. The cell was also sound proofed so parents and teachers outside wouldn’t hear him crying. I am writing this blog as a campaign to change the way these children are perceived and treated in our society.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Autism and Punishment

There is one aspect of having a child who views and reacts to the world so differently that is very hard to deal with:   Although I propose that an autistic child is not at fault for his temper, I find that many people are simply not sympathetic to someone who behaves “differently.”
When dealing with my son, I have found it very helpful to have a conceptual framework or theory on why he is behaving the way he is.  There have been studies that show autistic children have a lower amount of the long-range inter-connectivity in their neural networks.  I propose that the lack of these long range connectors results in many of the behaviors that he displays.
One behavior that “gets him in trouble” is how it appears as if he is not listening to the adult who is trying to give him directions.  But, if he has impaired long range connectors, what else would you expect him to do?  The eighth nerve in the ear may be sending the message to the brain, but that doesn’t mean the message is being processed.  One of my personal frustrations with him was how he would not listen when there was danger.  For example, we could be outside and he would see something interesting, he may run towards it without any sense of the dangers in the world around him.   He could dart out in front of a car to get to the cute dog he sees across the street, and completely ignore my screams for him to stop!  But when we tested him for hearing, his hearing is fine.  So, that must mean that he is ignoring the adult?  … well, no, not if he is focusing on something else.  His ear may be working, but the message is simply not being received nor processed by him.  His entire world is the cute dog that he wants to get to. 
Another way in which this lack of long range neural connectors could affect a child would be in how they display their emotions.  If the area of the brain that deals with emotions is somewhat isolated, they could be feeling a lot of things that is never being communicated to the frontal lobes for processing and planning, nor communicated to the speech center.  Finally, when it is too much for the emotional center (because the child has been suffering for a while now), you have an eruption of emotion as that message is finally received and the child reacts.  What is the child upset about?  The response might be something simple, like they are really thirsty and need something to drink.  So you get them water, but they remain upset and crying.  You have placed the water in front of them, but once again, the message that the water is now there has not made it back to the emotional part of the brain.  That part of the brain is still suffering from the fact that it was upset about being ignored.  And, to the best of its knowledge, it is still being ignored because the visual cortex cannot communicate with it to let it know that a glass of water is sitting within hands reach.  Imagine that you are young and not able to reach the cupboard to get a glass, and every time you wanted or needed a glass of water, you were completely ignored until you started to scream and cry.  You are continually in a state of pain and discomfort, and when you have had enough and try to fight for the water, you are punished by people three times your size.  What a scary world.  This is the world that the autistic child lives in, one in which their needs are ignored until they throw an absolute fit … any wonder that they lose their tempers?  And then we, the adults, punish them.
In my two earlier posts I spoke of two schools that I sent my son to.  One school would lock him in a closet when he would become upset, and the other school would physically restrain him and take away everything that he looked forward to that day.  The school he is in now has wonderful teachers and they are very supportive, but I still feel that a paradigm shift in how we view these children needs to happen.  There are so many times, so many things that happen where his needs are not met until he throws a fit, and then they react.  There seems to be a constant push by society (or the school in this case) for my child to conform.  He is the one with the problem, and he needs to change.
The reason that I find this so frustrating is that if my child was born with no legs, I have a hard time imagining someone pushing the child to walk, to drag himself along the ground.  But I constantly see him being pushed to do things that he is not currently capable of doing …
What has helped me tremendously with my son, is to shift the focus away from what my son cannot do, and onto what he can.  I set him up to succeed in every way that I can.  There are several things that I now do that help tremendously:
1)      Allow him enough time to transition from one activity to another.  As a single working parent I am always in a rush, I have to switch into a slower gear when dealing with him as when I try to rush him he becomes overwhelmed.
2)      I let him know ahead of time what is going to happen and what I expect of him.  Before we go over to his friend’s house, I let him know that we are going to leave at a particular time.  Before his friend comes over to play, I let him know that he needs to pick out some toys that he doesn’t mind the other child playing with.  Having the expectations set ahead of time makes all the difference.
3)      No matter how crazy it sounds to me, I take care of all of his sensory issues.  If we need to try on 10 pairs of sneakers to find a pair that he will wear, then I will do it.  When he focuses on something that bothers him, he cannot stop thinking about it, so comfortable clothes are very important for him to have a good, productive day.
4)      When he becomes upset, I wait until he is calm before I try to give him direction … even when we are out in the community and people stare at me while he is behaving inappropriately.  They can stare all they want, if I try to communicate with him when he is in that state, it only serves to keep him agitated longer.
And the final and main thing that I do is I accept and love him for being the way he is. 

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