Why this Behavioural Observer isn't a Behaviourist

I’ve spent hours observing and recording the actions and reactions of insects and humans. I’m a behavioural observer, but I don’t consider myself to be a Behaviourist. Despite the usefulness of Behaviourism for training animals (including humans) to perform particular tasks, I find that school of thought to be too limiting for understanding and helping people.
Some years ago when I was taking my MSc in entomology, I studied insect behaviour. One of the professors introduced us to Miller & Strickler’s “rolling fulcrum” model* for how insects respond. Essentially this idea states that there are internal factors (of varying strengths) that affect how much an insect responds to of excitatory or inhibitory stimuli. The example given was that even if you smell something really appetising, if you’re not hungry then you’re not going to eat it. It was presented as something profound, but my internal response was along the lines of, “Duh!” (My external response was to continue doodling triangular pursuit curves on the margins of my lecture notes.)
In other words, Continue reading Why this Behavioural Observer isn't a Behaviourist

"For no reason"

(Coffee-spew warning)

“I don’t know; he just started biting the other kid for no reason. But you know, children-with-autism just do those things.”
“We were just going over the lesson when alla-sudden she just BLEW UP for no reason, and started cussing and calling me an F-ing B and threw her folder papers all over and stormed out of the room!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with this kid. He’ll just pitch an absolute FIT. We tried to restrain him but then he starting kicking the para and screaming and banging his head on the floor. Honestly, he does. It’s awful, believe me. He’s just uncontrollable — if you want, we can set him off and you’ll see what I mean!”

These are re-created quotes, not verbatim from documentation. But I’m sure you get the idea. (The behavior specialist was naturally horrified Continue reading "For no reason"

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.
A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.
Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Continue reading A very painful problem

Building Blocks

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
~Noam Chomsky

Every now and then I run into a word that sounds like a good thing. “Tolerance” is one such word, which I’ve blogged on before. Surprisingly, consensus can be another. Mind you, it’s not always, just sometimes. Groups of people try to reach consensus so they can agree upon a plan for accomplishing something without anyone being left out of important decision-making, or without missing good ideas to be gleaned from a variety of viewpoints.
But “consensus-building” exercises can sometimes have the terrible effect of watering everything down to the lowest common denominator, and eliminating novel ideas in favor of mediocrity. Other times they just result in the dread ‘paralysis by analysis’. In worst-case scenarios, they can “railroad” decisions through an unsuspecting group, leaving individuals feeling slightly queasy and dissatisfied at the results, but not understanding why that would be because they seemed to have reached that consensus from a lot of thoughtful group effort.
I’ve sat through a lot of meetings in my life. Usually they begin with lots of carbohydrates & caffeine, useful additions to the social grooming-behaviour necessary to boost bonhomie and settle the humans down to coöperative activity. After the pleasantries, we start off with a positive programme goal, the sort of thing that everybody can agree upon. That’s cool. We now begin with shared vision and collective purpose.
Then at one meeting I felt like everything went sideways and inside-out, a sort of seminar-vertigo. Worse, no one else seemed to be experiencing it. Continue reading Building Blocks

Denial blah-blah-blah Denial

Some of our students with behavioural issues are masters of agitating peers, being defiant, and avoiding work. They have a wide and well-practiced arsenal of tactics for weaseling out of responsibility: the Nomothetic Fallacy, denial, distraction, “forgetting”, dismissal of the importance of what they did, wanting a “fresh start”, trivializing events or redefining the significance of their actions, hollow apologies, feigning victimhood, or personal attacks.
Three different events (all with the same student) provide a number of examples. What’s notable here are several things. Continue reading Denial blah-blah-blah Denial

Who Owns What?

SCENE 1
“You can’t make me!” she replied in a taunting, bratty voice.
Then I calmly replied with what is probably one of the most difficult things for a parent or staff member to ever say, “You’re right. I cannot ‘make’ you do anything.”
Following this factual statement was the next important one that stepped away from the power struggle between myself and this now-very-smug teen, and led us back to the actions-and-consequences. “Because YOU are responsible for your behavior. You need to get your work done – and completing it to an acceptable level – so you can do other things like have computer free time, read a book, or play pool. Or even take a nap, if that’s what you want to do. Now, do you want to do the reading together, or by yourself?”
SCENE 2
“Hah! You can’t make me!” he challenged.
“You’re right. I cannot ‘make’ you do anything. However, I am responsible for your safety, and that is not a safe choice. You need to follow directions for this assignment, or we are going to quit this right now. IF you don’t complete the assignment in a safe manner, THEN you are not going to get free time afterwards.”
(Damn but he didn’t go ahead and try to eat the chile pepper seeds anyway, which painful natural consequences required much rinsing-and-spitting, and consumption of bread to mop up the capsaicin oils that were hurting the inside of his mouth. Of course all this first aid meant that he had the rest of the seed-planting assignment to make up later on, and he had no free time for play. What fools these mortals be!)
SCENE 3
“You’re making me mad!” she snapped.
Wait a minute, didn’t we recently establish that you cannot “make” someone do something? The same also applies to feelings, despite all the social conventions we ascribe to making someone sad or someone else making us happy, or a situation making us frustrated. No one is actually responsible for someone else’s feelings.
In truth, our feelings arise not from the situations and not from what people say or do, but rather from our views and opinions about events. This is why different people can have different responses to the same situations.
This is why the verbal abuse from others rolls right past me now, because I understand that it’s not really about me, it’s about other people acting out their problems.
“I didn’t really mean it,” he protested, “She knows I didn’t really mean it; I was just all stressed out about my mom. She shouldn’t get so mad.”
“You’re still responsible for what you say to others that can be upsetting to them.”
Nor is anyone necessarily responsible for the feelings they have, especially given that they arise from parts of the brain that we do not have conscious control over.
However, everyone is responsible for their own actions. We are responsible for what we do that others can react to in their happiness, sadness, anger or fear. We are also responsible for our own words and actions derived from our own happiness, sadness, anger or fear.
“I can’t help it – I’m pissed!” he ranted, pacing back and forth.
“Okay, you can’t help being angry. Everybody gets angry sometimes. But kicking the lockers and ripping up the bulletin board is NOT an appropriate way of reacting to that upset. You need to come up with a better way of handling such situations, and how you are reacting to them.”

Who Owns It?

“It’s not about YOU,” I explained, although I had that dreaded sinking sensation that although the words flowed by her ears and pinballed through the processing areas of her brain, that although she was hearing and listening and understanding the verbiage, the other staff member was also not really understanding what the hell I meant. Meanwhile, the children around us were bouncing around in various levels of happiness, impulsiveness, mild disobedience, and general obliviousness to rules. As long as no one was getting hurt, the minor details of behaviour didn’t matter; this was yet another day at the city pool, in a long line of such overly-hot summer days at the city pool.
“It’s not about what you’re doing,” I tried in vain to rephrase, although my efforts were getting to be pretty lame by this time in the afternoon, what with the combination of summer heat, the impact of children’s high-decibel noise aggravated by hyperacussis, and the strain of trying to track a dozen children despite mild faceblindness. “I mean, how you handle it does matter, but …” I stared into the distance, as one of our charges was wandering around with her bathing suit bottom halfway up one buttock. I kept track of our children by remembering what bathing suits they were wearing, so I was predisposed to notice such. “But it’s not about you.” I finished, flapping my hands a bit in agitation as those words were still in my verbal buffer, but I was instead needing to formulate some kind of sentence directed to another staff member closer to our wayward girl.
“Oh, he’s just being defiant, and I’m not going to let him,” she replied in the self-assured manner of the barely-twenty-something, and left me to go refill her cup of iced cola. I heaved a big sigh at the idea of “letting” someone be defiant, and went to intercept one of our autistic boys so he wouldn’t toss bits of paper into an air conditioner fan.
There are some children who are just explosive in temperament, for any number of reasons. Handling such children is always tricky, because it’s all to easy to get sucked into the whole situation and end up aggravating the dynamic instead of damping it.
Some children get angry because they are being defiant, and are pushing you into a power struggle. We’re familiar with how this works with toddlers who return instruction with a, “NO!” The best approach for such is to give them choices that are acceptable to you – the toddler feels they now have some measure of immediate control over their life, and yet you are still in ultimate control by being able to select options that are appropriate. Teenagers are sometimes like toddlers-with-hormones, and frequently benefit from similar tactics. In any regard, you shouldn’t respond to the power struggle, but rather respond to the situation and help the child understand the options they have available to them, and how to anticipate the results of their choices. (Sometimes I hate to use the word “consequences” because it has gotten so laden with meaning punishments.)
This particular staff member was predictably playing into the power struggle, and was determined that she was going to “win” by proving something or another to the child. However, this child wasn’t really being defiant in the volitional sense. The defiance wasn’t premeditated or consciously malicious. This was just one of those children who didn’t have sufficiently well-developed mental “brakes” to be self-aware, anticipate things, and stop himself before he reacted to situations. Such children frequently have low frustration levels, which are also a result of this kind of dysfunction.
The issue here was many-fold. For one thing, the staff member was reacting to the effects of the problem (the blow-ups) instead of the cause of the problem (the child’s processing dysfunction, plus the ongoing presence of situations that fed into the blow-ups). For another thing, the staff member believed that she had a lot more ownership of the solution to the problem than she did. She probably also likely believed that the child had a lot more ownership of the cause of the problem than he did. But although the child rarely meant to get so upset or angry, he still had to have some responsibility for what he did, otherwise he would end up reneging on most of his personal responsibility and go from being a child with a problem to being a brat with a problem.
It’s one of those weird little subconscious glitches in our brains that leads us to make fundamental attribution errors – our own lapses are caused by environmental reasons (“I of course couldn’t help but be incoherent as the heat and noise was making me tired”), but other’s lapses are caused by their moral failing (“but she was being foolish”). Staff members, teachers and other people usually assign successes to themselves, and failures to the children.
But in real life, education “takes two to tango” – both the teacher and the student need to work at the process. So does engaging in arguments – the second person has to continue to give the first person enough responses that reinforce all the hollering and carrying-on.
Diffusing these explosive situations is difficult. We have to figure out just when a child is being truly manipulative, and when it’s some kind of cognitive dysfunction, and when it’s a child with some kind of cognitive dysfunction that on that day is just being manipulative – life is messy! Sometimes we can identify what kinds of situations tend to spark these meltdowns, and then during a good time, discuss with the child what ways we could work with them to change things so they would be less problematic. We can also defuse or at least reduce those meltdowns by not giving into the power struggles. We have to remain compassionate, but detached. Be calm, remove extra people from the situation, give plenty of personal space, have open and friendly body language to reduce the feeling of threat, even be silent sometimes to let the argument fizzle out. After the child has calmed down then we can reflect with them in an objective manner about what happened, what needs to be done to rectify the problem by restitution to the others who were involved, and work proactively to reduce such future events.
But as I redirected the boy from flicking bits of paper to flicking pool water, I realised that I would not be able to “make” the other staff member understand something until she was ready to look beyond the necessity for “not letting” him do something. I could not control her need to “win” the argument any more than she could control his need to not quit an activity when it was time to leave.

Gone to Pot

And now, a topic near-and-dear to everyone’s heart: using the toilet.
Ask six different adults their opinions on toilet-training, and you’ll get six different opinions. You’ll even more than six opinions if any of them are parents, because a person’s expertise changes with each child, as each child seems to go through the whole process differently.
With any child, toilet training is an incremental process that has less to do with the willingness of the adult, and is dependent upon more than just the willingness of the child. Toilet-training children with developmental disabilities can certainly take much longer than with typical children, due to the number of factors affecting the whole learning process.
Toilet training is actually a very complex combination of factors. The child has to be able to do several things in sequence. A lot of children (of all sorts!) will get “hung up” on one or more points, thus delaying or even permanently hampering their ability to be come fully toilet-trained.
Consider the following:
1. The child must be able to be aware of having a full bladder or rectum (these are often acquired separately, with the child mastering one before the other);
2. The child must be able to be aware of the full sensation with enough time to get to the toilet and do everything else necessary before toileting;
3. The child must be able to consciously control both functions (start & stop);
4. The child must be able to undress independently;
5. The child must be able to manœuver themselves correctly onto the toilet seat and back off again;
6. The child must be able to wipe themselves adequately (and remember, it’s hard to dismount the toilet without getting the seat messy — this is tricky!);
7. The child must be able to re-dress independently;
8. The child must be able to wash their hands adequately.
It’s really helpful if the child doesn’t become distracted by some other event or random thought in the middle of the process (especially with boys who pee standing up, and can turn to look at something else…)
It’s also really helpful if the child can remember to flush the toilet, and do so without either freaking out at the noise, or becoming fascinated at watching any number of household objects go swirling into oblivion … ::sigh::
Some kids will take much longer to get all these things down. Every parent in the universe can tell stories of how their child[ren] got hung up at some part of that or another.
Not being toilet-trained isn’t the end of the world. There are, after all, diapers sold for adults for the simple reason that not everyone is fully able to have full control. These are no more “shameful” than are tampons and pads.
And then there’s the whole universe of situations outside of the home that can make toileting a far-from-consistent skill …
Something parents find is that their child is happily toilet-trained at home, but not elsewhere. This is very distressing for some parents, because (subconsciously) they feel that it is their reputations (ego) on the line – they’ve told everyone that their child is toilet-trained, and here is the child failing to do so. It seems to reflect badly on their truthfulness or their parenting skills, or damages their social standing among their peers.
It’s rarely about the parent, though.
When children can’t or don’t want to use other’s toilets, it may be a cognitive maturity thing (being able to generalise what is done at home with doing it elsewhere), it may be a “bashful bladder” issue, and/or it may be a sensory issue.
A lot of people don’t “get” these sensory issues. Allow a bit of autobiographical information here, if you will (don’t worry; nothing gross).
Different kinds of toilet seats may feel “wrong” — the U-shaped seats are uncomfortable for a small child because of their narrow hips. Or for example, I am cued to toilet on the convex ring seat, but when I encountered a totally flat seat, it felt a lot like a school chair seat!
Even worse is the cheap, industrial toilet paper used in schools and public restrooms. Or the strange toilet paper dispensers that issue small folded sheets or that won’t fully rotate. Or the soap dispensers that issue gritty powder or strange-smelling goo. (It’s interesting that if you talk to world travelers you’ll hear lots of stories about difficult toileting situations, and yet somehow many of those same adults would be annoyed if a child had similar difficulties when encountering a strange toilet.)
With acute olfactory senses, others’ bathrooms will also smell wrong (it is almost at the level of an animal instinct — you do not use someone else’s territory).
Public bathrooms are noisy and full of commotion, and again from the biological perspective, toileting is done in privacy because the animal is defenseless during the process.
Some of the hot-air hand dryers work at an amazing noise frequency that hurts the ears, especially when you are standing or seated nearby with your head at the same height. And who hangs all these sinks so high that small people and wheelchair users find them difficult to reach?
Other people’s home bathrooms may simply be full of distractions — they are full of interesting objects not contained at home that look different, smell different and work differently.
There are sometimes other factors at work that are not apparent; one year in primary school I kept getting re-occuring bladder infections. The pædiatrician said for me to quit taking bubble baths. Well, that helped a little, but the problem remained. My mother told me that I simply needed to go more often. “Simply” was difficult, because on weekends I would get so wrapped up in (hyperfocused upon) whatever fascinating thing I was working on that I couldn’t “hear” my physiological signals that I needed to go until I really, really needed to go.
“Simply” was even more difficult on weekdays, because my fourth-grade teacher was a new graduate who felt a strong need to be in control of her classroom, and letting the students get up at all times to go to the bathroom upset her routine and that control.
The bathrooms also smelled. I know, everyone says that school bathrooms smell. But my personal definition of “smelly” turns out to be quantitatively different than others’ “smelly”: stale sour body odors compounded with the intrusive artificiality of perfumes, aftershave, scented deodorant, cloying fabric softener, and hairspray; chewing gum and mints and candies; nauseating sting of cigarettes; abrasively floral room “deodorizer”; caustic bathroom sanitizers; various toileting odors including the muddy smell of used tampons and pads, the sharp sour odor of someone with intestinal upset, or ketosis odor of someone on a high-protein diet; institutional handwashing soap and brown paper towels; and general trenchant skunkiness of locker rooms. If it is a unisex primary school bathroom in the classroom or nurse’s office, then there is the sweet odor of small-boy urine as well. I found these odors to be so over-powering that I avoided the bathroom unless direly necessary.
It took months for my mother to understand the problem, because she had to ask me about school, actually take my answers seriously, and then take the enquiry further. This was because at the time, I totally lacked the understanding that she didn’t know what my class was like, and how the teacher was running the class. She simply assumed that if I was having a problem that I would be able to identify it, and know how to resolve it, including knowing what I needed to tell whom! (Sorry, that was too much social awareness for this nine-year old aspie kid.) Finally we got things sorted out, and my pædiatrician wrote my mother a note to pass on to my teacher explaining that I was prone to bladder infections and needed to go to the bathroom frequently, and was not merely trying to avoid schoolwork or whatever.
Other problems I later had with bathrooms in secondary high was the fact that the bathrooms were where the bullies hung out, who gave me no end of grief. I have some face-blindness issues (which I was unaware of then) so could not identify who those people were.
In truth, the whole toilet-training process is more about ability than willingness. The child has to be ready — and once they are physiologically ready, they are usually willing as well, provided they understand a benefit to moving from diapers to the toilet. Avoiding parental upset at still being in diapers is not necessarily a major driving force for some children, especially if parental annoyance has been an everyday part of the home landscape for a long time.
The end message here is that what a person is observing (as so many people do with autistics) is the end behaviour. What cannot readily be discerned, but is more important, is what causes the behaviours. If you are dealing with toilet issues, then remember that trying to modify the effect (that is the resulting behaviour) is less effective than to modify the cause of what is creating the behaviour! Figure out why the child is having difficulty and address that.
And yes, I’ve dealt with toileting issues from the parental end. Encopresis is not fun, but children do mature! I don’t know what my mother did to resolve the fecal-smearing problem (she’s no longer around to ask), but I grew out of that.
I even learned to tie my shoes, although that’s another story.

Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.
Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.
Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …
Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!
Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.
Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.
Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.
When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.
The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.
Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.
Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.
They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)
We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.
This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.
Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.
We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.
We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.
We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

It's Not Easy Being Variegated

Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’

 

“Why is she doing that – stop it! You’d better stop it right now or else!”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother had told me, “I don’t know why you’d want to do that,” I could buy a plane ticket to Helsinki. Mind you, she never asked why I wanted to do whatever the particular “that” was at the time. If it wasn’t important to her, then it wasn’t important at all. (This is so selfish and one-sided it slides into the realm of the pathological.)

All behaviour provides some kind of communicated message. The onus of burden on communication does not belong to either the autistic or to the people interacting with them. Rather, it belongs to both. Communication is a result. It takes two to tango, sender and receiver each way. Communication can happen in many ways. But unless both parties can find a way to share the message, and are willing to try, it won’t happen.
To make communication happen, we must be able to think outside of the usual verbal box. We have to really observe what is going on, and figure out why someone is doing what they are doing. A lot of people seem to have difficulty understanding the concept of cause and effect – they want to react to the effects, rather than figuring out the causes. It’s easier that way, I suppose; it doesn’t require any thinking.
Let me tell you a garden story as an analogy. In entomology we have a concept called the “pesticide treadmill,” where people find it easier to either spray pesticides on a calendar basis, rather than assessing the actual need for such and what is causing problems, or they wait until problems reach catastrophic levels and then spray. Both of these approaches are both a waste of time and money. Regularly scheduled “calendar spraying” increases pollution, and only pushes for greater pesticide resistance in the pest populations. Not surprisingly, waiting until the pest population blows out of proportion does not yield effective results either, either in terms of pest control or in benefit to the crop.
Sometimes people go around spraying insecticides on their plants, when what they really have is a fungus problem, or a nutrient problem, or an insufficiency of light. Amazingly, the insecticide doesn’t solve the problem! So, they keep on spraying … why? Because the first dose didn’t work. So they think they need more doses, and it should work if you keep giving enough doses. Hmn…
In much the same manner, some people want to do the equivalent thing with their clients or family members — treat symptoms with treatments, instead of figuring out what is causing the problem. Give them tranquilisers, or neuroleptics, or megadoses of vitamins, or chelation, whatever — some “treatments” are far worse than others, but it’s still trying to treat the symptoms rather than figuring out what is causing difficulty. (Amazingly, more doses don’t solve the problem!)
Or indeed, sometimes it’s easier to give “treatments” than to determine if there truly is a difficulty – not all different behaviours are problem behaviours.

“Help!” says a gardening class student, “my plant has yellow leaves! What’s wrong with it? Does it have bugs? Should I give it some Miracle Grower drops?”
“Um, ma’am, this is a variegated ginger. It has green and gold leaves. That’s the way it grows. It’s okay – it’s supposed to be like that.” Student looks dubious. “Your plant is just fine. Really. Enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s naturally variegated from its genes, and that’s what makes it different.”
Student still looks dubious, and says, “I don’t know … it looks sick to me. It’s just too weird – I want my plants to all look nice and green.”
“If you don’t like it, then take it to the office, or to church, or whatever. There are plenty of people who love special plants like this.”

But it takes extra time and effort to observe, monitor, and assess your plants for pest problems. A good IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program will save money in both reduced applications of pesticides, and increased value of your plants. But all this takes learning, observing, and thinking. Likewise, it takes learning, observing, and thinking to analyse the functional cause and effect of various behaviours.

Too often the child (or even adult) is perceived as being a problem, rather than as having a problem. Instead of figuring out what is causing the problem, the reaction is focused upon the effect that is the child’s behaviour. This has to be stopped right now; the child is being bad, children should not talk back, and children should not win arguments! (There’s a recipe for disaster; simply give orders without listening to others and taking their concerns seriously.)
Punishing the child for misbehaving should stop the behaviour, right? Possibly. Unless the child perceives that the punishment (such as an out-of-school suspension) is better than the problem that is distressing them (being bullied). Punishment can sometimes stop a behaviour (depending upon what’s going on), but it doesn’t often change the behaviour because it does not teach a person what to do instead. As long as the behaviour gains something for the person, it won’t go away. That “something” doesn’t always have to be an optimal result, merely a less-bad result. In other words, the behaviour serves some kind of function. When we’re untangling the problem, determining what that function is will be very important, because that’s the key to figuring out what is needed in the way of determining the true problem and a better solution.