"Good Sitting"

“ ‘Four on the floor’, please,” I ask one of the students, meaning sit with all four chair legs down on the floor, rather than balancing on the back two. Then by way of explanation I add, “I’ve seen what those poor chairs have been through, and wouldn’t want you to get hurt if it breaks.”

And that’s the truth. I’m not hung up on “good sitting”, and I really don’t want to see a student who weighs over 200 pounds/90 kilos to be leaning back on the rear two legs of a cheap school chair. (Or for that matter, sitting on a desk that’s been screwed back together an uncounted number of times due to being pitched by a student having a tantrum.)

One reason why I’m not terribly concerned with sitting properly is the fact that like myself, a good number of our students have AD/HD and sitting still and neatly is simply impossible. Sitting bolt upright is really only necessary if you’re playing a musical instrument. Furthermore, when I was young, I really hated hearing orders to “sit right” or “sit appropriately”, as given by my family or by my teachers. (Thankfully we weren’t a church-going family, as I can guarantee that sitting still during a service would have been damn near impossible.)

Most of us know that sitting appropriately means both feet on the floor and “good posture”. Granted, good posture is important to maximize aerobic capacity when playing music, and to reduce mechanical (physiological) stresses when typing/keyboarding for long periods of time. However, enforcing “good posture” to have a classroom of children all lined up like robots or like soldiers on parade is nothing more than an exercise in creating and enforcing conformity and sheep-like docility.

But perhaps you’re not an irrepressibly squirmy sort yourself, so you might ask, How do you “sit inappropriately” anyway? If you’re sitting, what’s the problem?

Let’s see…

  • you sit on your desk and put your feet on your chair seat, or worse, on the chair back with the chair balanced on its back feet and the chair seat against your calves;
  • you straddle your chair like a cowhand (facing backwards), draping your arms over the backrest;
  • you slouch way down so your buttocks are nearly hanging off the edge of the seat and your chin is resting on your chest;
  • you lay on the floor and prop your calves and feet up on the seat of the chair;
  • you sit perpendicular on a chair by draping yourself by laying your stomach across the seat, reading a book on the floor;
  • you bend one leg akimbo, and sit atop your foot that’s on the chair seat, causing you to wobble all through the lesson (or mealtime);
  • you constantly jiggle one leg while leaning on a table, thus making the table vibrate (this earns you many disparaging remarks when it results in rattling crockery at dinner time);
  • commanded to “Sit still already!” because of the constant fidgeting, you wind a foot around a chair leg and lean on top of your desk, leaving hardly any room for the arithmetic worksheet (and thus get eraser crumbs and pencil smudges on your shirt);
  • you shift nearly constantly in a hard chair, trying to hold yourself aloft by pressing palms-down on the seat, because some fool decided to dress you in “rumba panties” (little girl’s underwear with rows of lace across the butt), and the horrifying corrugated itchiness makes it impossible to get comfortable;
  • owing to the fact that your shoelaces have come untied again (shoelaces are “the work of the devil”!) and by treating the combination of school desk and seat like a Roman couch, you are stretched out on your side with one leg stuck out into the aisle between the school desks, and your toes swivel back and forth in the heel end of your shoe;
  • you lack the anchor of a back-rest while sitting on the stool in art class, and so end up rocking side to side and quietly humming and staring at the pile of paper or clay while mentally flicking through a panorama of 3D images as you plan out your project.

Outside of the classroom:

  • you sit perpendicular on a rocking chair, legs draped over one of the arms, rocking the chair by grabbing the shelf of a nearby bookcase with the toes of one foot;
  • you pretzel up on the end of the sofa, one knee bent to your chest and the other foot once again jiggling – sometimes that foot is raised with the leg straight and the ankle resting on the top of the sofa back as though it were a ballet barre;
  • you slouch down in the padded theatre seating in the school auditorium or on the school bus, and prop your knees on the back of the seat in front of you;
  • you wiggle underneath a beanbag chair (to feel the pressure) while leafing through a book on a particular interest of yours;
  • you spin around-and-around-and-around on the doctor’s examination stool;
  • you stare out the window at the clouds or at a lazily-spinning ceiling fan or at a knot in the furniture veneer, or lay your head on the desk and “drive” your finger along the patterns in the laminate, or pick compulsively at the remnant of an old price tag on the back of a text book. In short, you look at anything but the person speaking to you, because you are concentrating on what someone is saying, rather than concentrating on making eye contact.

Amazingly, for all I received a number of comments in class, none of my teachers ever commented on this on my report cards. I supposed that was because I was a quiet, otherwise generally obedient child.

Come to think of it, I still find myself sitting “inappropriately” at times. It’s less of an issue now, not because I don’t still have the impulse, but rather because I’ve found other ways of venting energy, or getting more proprioceptive input, or simply creating more opportunities for getting up from my seat on a frequent basis.

Back in my current classroom, the student mumbles at me, a mere formality of acknowledgement or perhaps token resistance, as he lets the chair drop to a more stable position. “Thank you,” I reply. (No way would I ever commend someone with “Good sitting!” as though they were a dog.) I have no personal need for my students to “sit right” – my concern is that they are able to interact with their peers and the staff appropriately, and to be able to achieve their personal educational objectives. I recognize that some of them will end up doing so orbiting their desks (or other work surfaces) in a number of postures. And that’s okay by me.

(Addendum: we might note that during the writing of this I sat in my rocker in a number of postures, including both legs folded on the seat with one knee up by my shoulder. More conventional postures are engaged in only when one of our four cats requests a lap to sit upon.)

The Dreaded Betweens

I’ve never found an official name for this. A small, very informal survey indicates that it happens to AD/HD people and autistics, if not others as well. Maybe it will sound familiar to you, too. Let me know.
I’ve always just thought of this distinctive funk as The Betweens once I had been through enough cycles to see the overall trend. But The Betweens is more than just your “get-up-and-go done got-up-and-went”.
It’s somewhat analogous to the manic ups and depressive downs of bipolar, but doesn’t really function the same way. The Betweens is much more inwardly focused. I would expect that having The Betweens premenstrually or in combination with some other cyclic physiological thing could definitely make it worse.
The Betweens are evidenced when the intense GoGoGo from having a new perseveration (or a new slant on a favorite old one) has worn off. Sometimes it’s the body and sometimes it’s the mind. Or maybe it’s both, and you feel about as useful as a beached jellyfish and as brainy as a slug.
You can’t keep your train of thought on track. You can’t remember squat, which is frustrating as hell for a mind that’s used to going brilliantly full-tilt. The ennui is horrible, and like a junkie searching for old dribs and drabs of xir favorite fix, you schlump from staring at the dregs of one old obsession to another, staring dumbly at piles of hobby materials or over-loaded bookshelves, and not even sure why you have these things sitting around, or possibly even what you did with them.
It’s not just problem of, “I had a brain; I miss my brain”. The pang of nostalgia that seeps across the heart is neither for a particular time nor a place, but is for the feeling of having been in some manner intensely connected with the universe, and then someone has cruelly cut the umbilicus. (And if this is what “normal” feels like, I don’t want it!)
You ooze out of bed, and once up, seem to be crashing into wall corners and tripping on shoelaces and all those other entertaining tricks, but even more so than usual.
You’re disoriented and distractible, and staying focused on a complex task like driving a vehicle requires much more concentration than it ought to. Your adept has turned into un-dept, or some such thing.
Even worse is being in graduate school and having a bad case of the Research Betweens, ugh! Academia is rife with stories of students who achieved all their coursework and finished collecting and analysing all the data, and then got started on their theses but never finished the writing, thence never finishing their degrees. One doesn’t have to have been in such circumstances to have done this, but it sure is easy to understand. This is the sort of situation that makes up aspie nightmares, right up there with job interviews and cocktail parties!
In a way, The Betweens is like a craving. There probably is some kind of positive-feedback (dopamine?) loop when one is in a long perseveration “zone”. Once you crash out, there’s the withdrawal. It’s kind of a rebound depression from a sustained high. C’est normal, but the trick is recognising it, “Oh yeah, this is just the cool down / recharging stage”.
In a charitable moment, I suppose I could say that the Betweens are an opportunity for recharging one’s batteries. Then again, in real life I need to be spot-on, day after day, and therein lies the problem. Thankfully, The Betweens does go away. But never, never soon enough! ::shudder::
I probably would have written some Blues lyrics about, “Being in The Betweens” except that when you have them — you can’t ! (Oy, the irony)
The closest thing I have found that works to tripping the Restart button is to do some heavy, simple exercise that takes several hours to complete.
Alas, it usually takes me a few days of seeping down into The Betweens before enough stray thoughts coalesce to generate the realisation that, “Er, I am once again suffering from the Betweens!” And then of course, I have to retain that realisation and lurch myself into doing something about it. (Because part of The Betweens is the Nomothetic Fallacy, which explains that merely naming a problem is not the same thing as actually solving it.)
::sigh::
Normally this is when I would go outdoors and do a couple days of heavy-duty gardening.
Woe is me if the world outside is covered in ice. There is no indoor work that is analogous. Cleaning out closets is much too mentally taxing, and I have learned the hard way that I would be way too likely to do something terribly foolish, like throw away boxes full of materials that are highly necessary when in another frame of mind. Painting walls might run close, except for all the blasted furniture-moving and hole-spackling and sanding and careful brushing-in the edges.  I don’t have the mental energy for this prep-work when I’m in The Betweens.
But when I can, shovelling, or raking up thousands of leaves, or turning over the compost heap only requires a few stray neurons for the task, and are such gross motor skills that I am not a threat, even to myself. (Despite that, I bought a leaf rake with plastic tines, just to be sure — one does get wiser with age).
With all this therapeutic manual labor, the brain mushes along lazily for a couple hours, and eventually the rhythm of the labour asserts itself. For some reason, all of my re-set activities end up being those that require me to rock back and forth, but unlike rocking in my chair, this is whole-body rocking. The fact that I am equipped with a rake to collect a pile of leaves, or a pitchfork to manœuvre a heap of dead plant materials into a more aerated mass, is mere camouflage.
By the time I am into the soaking-off-the-dirt-in-the-tub stage, the endorphins begin to kick in and my brain is mellowed out from the intellectual vacation. Trickles of concepts begin to flow again. Give me another day, and I will have reached critical mass once more, and be lit afire!
 

Unreal World

“But what is he going to do once he gets to the Real World?”
I had to smile at my fellow paraprofessional, thinking to myself that having been out in the big, bad Real World, I was doing my darndest to get back into academia.
One of our students has dysgraphia problems, and gets a scribe when there are a lot of answers to write down on assignments.
“Then he’ll do what other people do:  type things on the computer, talk to people, make recordings, or do what people used to do – dictate stuff for a secretary!”
This is a not uncommon reaction when a scribe is suggested for a student because of their tortuously slow handwriting speed, and/or because the penmanship is outright difficult to read.  People are afraid that giving a student a scribe to write down assignment answers is going to mollycoddle them.
But really, we have to ask ourselves just what is being assessed.  Is this a test for penmanship, or are we trying to help the student get information and concepts cemented into the brain, or checking their understanding of such?  Because if the handwriting process is so laborious, then our student of question will not progress far into the assignment.  They will also get very frustrated from the effort, and likely not finish the lesson, especially if this is a student with a prior history of academic difficulties.  Naturally, both of these factors do not improve the learning process.
To be clear, a scribe is someone who takes dictation, not someone who does the lesson for a student.  Giving a student a scribe is a good example of changing the environment to fit what a student needs, rather than forcing them into a mold they don’t well fit.  When done correctly, providing this kind of help does not enable them to be lazy, but rather enables them to be more productive.
When we have students who are not being compliant or on task, it’s good to ask ourselves what the actual task is that’s not getting done, and what the end result is that is actually needed in the educational process.

Stimulating Topics of Conversation

Today was a long, exhausting day working at summer camp. It was, as some people are wont to say, “a stimmy day”. So that’s the topic of today’s blogging.
One of the complaints I read about on some parenting boards is “the stimming problem”, when a child engages in self-stimulatory behaviours. (No, I don’t mean masturbating, although that could be a stim; we’re referring to finger-fiddly activities, whole body activities like jumping, rocking, spinning, and so on.)
Many people act as though autism is cause of stimming. This isn’t quite true; stereotypical stimming behaviours are associated with autism. Rather, stress is the main cause. Stimming is nothing more than a more focused version of someone else’s “nervous habit”. Various stimming behaviors can be beneficial stress-coping mechanisms, assuming they’re not self-injurious.
We should note that stimming activities are things that EVERYONE does. People smoke, or fiddle with their hair, or stroke mustaches and beards, or spin wedding bands around their fingers, or chew gum, or bite pencils, or repeatedly click ballpoint pens, or fiddle with pocket change, or mangle paperclips, or count rosary beads, or slide necklaces, or play with earrings, or crack knuckles, or doodle on page margins, or stare out the window, or pace, or endlessly swizzle mixed drinks with decorative stirrers … you know, all those stereotypies that neurotypical people engage in.
The only difference is the type of activity. Those previous things are “normal” whereas autistic stimming things are “not-normal”. But how can something be “abnormal” when millions of autistic people do it? Then again, I bet a lot of those so-called “normal” behaviours are done by ADHD people leaking hyperactivity around the edges in a socially-acceptable manner.
I’m prone to “swaying” or rocking from side to side. I’ve been doing it for over forty years. My husband has finally resigned himself to the fact that if I stand and talk for more than a few minutes, I’m likely to start up. (It was camouflaged when I had tots in my arms, but now they’re in high school and college.) I even rock some while teaching and doing presentations (gasp!) and the world hasn’t come to a screeching halt yet. Fifteen-plus years of this and they still send me contracts and invitations. It’s not an issue of “she rocks but she’s a really good speaker” but rather that “she’s a really good speaker and sometimes she rocks”. Come to think of it, not even that. No one has ever mentioned it to me. Maybe no one notices. Or maybe no one cares.
My office chair is a rocking chair. Rocking chairs exist because people like to rock. Even the better sorts of conference room chairs rock. Rocking is soothing. Rock on!
Listening to the same music track repeatedly is a great stim. For the highly distractible ADHD brain, it nicely spackles in some of the attentional inputs, and helps drown out some of the random auditory background, thus enabling better concentration. There must be LOTS of people who like to do this, as many music players have a Repeat function so you can listen to the same track over and over and over and …
Some people try to reduce their child’s stimming through behavioral modification. Unfortunately, this often prevents the person from using their stress-coping mechanism, and thereby increases the sum stress load, which is unhealthy. Likewise suppressing behaviors such as stimming is not going remove the ultimate causality – masking the outward behavioral appearance does not change internal processing. Verily, it can create more difficulties for person by short-circuiting natural learning & stress-management techniques, thus reducing ability to successfully interact with world and others in it.
(And we all know that suppressing the stimming behaviours is not going to eliminate the autism, no matter how “normal” the person acts on the outside. Duh.)
Of course behavioral modification can be used to change problem behaviors; it is something that good parents and teachers do all the time. But smart parents and teachers know that the best way to prevent problem behavior in the long run is to address the cause of the problem. Wise and caring parents and teachers do not blame the child for having problems and stimming, but help the child learn ways of dealing with the daily stresses, and if really necessary, find ways of stimming that are more socially acceptable.
Because you know that stimmy autistic children grow up to be – stimmy autistic adults. And fidgety ADHD children grow up to be fidgety ADHD adults. Next time you’re in a meeting, quietly scatter a bunch of paper clips on the table and watch what everyone does with them!

Making Sense of Rules

Harry Wormwood to his daughter Matilda, from the movie based on Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda:
“I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

To make sense of something, to understand how it works, what is significant about it in your own experience, in short, to create a meaningful gestalt, requires that one be able to manipulate it physically, to stretch it, pull it, push it, turn it upside-down, use it in different ways and then compare and contrast the results. This is the active process of learning.

Making sense of the social world and its often unstated rules requires that one be able to do original research in the nature of it, just as one does with the physics of the universe. The problem however, especially for our autistic/Asperger’s students, is that the social world is not nearly so consistent as is the physical world or the digital world. You mess around with mechanical objects or video games, and the responses will consistently fall within the same parameters. Likewise, the ecology of the biological world is more complex, but still rather straightforward.

However, human social systems are rife with “fuzzy logic”. The social sciences are seen as comparatively “soft” sciences because sorting out the variables and interpreting the results is so damn tricky. Given such complexity and unpredictability, it’s no wonder that autistics, whose social radar is less acute, often prefer to stick with the natural sciences, or view themselves as researchers of human beings.

People not only need worlds that they can make sense of; they also need worlds that meet their needs. The needs of children and students are somewhat different than those of adults. They are still very much in the process of building understandings of the social world and of their places in them. They need to be able to create systems that are functional and adaptable, and they need to find a place in society that allows them to continue to grow as individuals, that draws upon their personal strengths and works with their individual weaknesses, and that respects the parts they will have to play throughout their lives.

Rigid, unyielding rules systems built upon the premise that the child or student is a bad person, who needs to be controlled, and always told what to do, cannot effectively provide that.

There’s a kind of physics in social relationships: push on someone, and they will push back with that familiar “equal and opposite reaction”. No one likes feeling controlled, like a helpless pawn in some chess game. Everyone wants to feel that they have some measure of say and control in how they get their needs met – this is what empowerment and respect is about.

Empowering others is scary for some people because it requires relinquishing some of their control. Or rather, empowering others is about giving them opportunity, the right tools, and letting them have responsibility. The whole crazy part about the current scenario at the JRC is the people in control complain that they “have” to use force (pain and other punishments and rewards) because the students would otherwise be irresponsible.

This isn’t about a child “testing authority” as feared by disciplinarians; it’s about the student being able to try things out, practice, reflect, discuss, acquire new skills, and practice some more. Being given absolute rules circumvents the learning process, and later when they need to adapt to novel situations, leaves the learner in the lurch, stranded without the knowledge of how to devise new strategies. They only have a limited number of tools in their social toolbox, and little knowledge of how to build new kinds of tools. If we go telling children what to do for their entire lives, then we shouldn’t wonder that they become young adults without the ability to think for themselves and to be responsible without someone monitoring their actions.

How do children learn to be responsible? It takes practice. If you want people to know how to be inner-directed, moral, responsible people, then they need the opportunities to learn how, and they need adults to share their wisdom and their power and to help them along the way.

Being Unruly

On Kevin’s blog, a former employee of the Judge Rotenberg Center, “kml”, described how one autistic student was subjected to electric shocks via GED because he would greet people arriving at the classroom by saying, “Hello”.  (The rationale being that the student’s actions were “disruptive”.)
Given that some parents spend a lot of time helping their autistic children develop verbal and social skills, this is especially heart-wrenching.
An authoritative, punitive approach doesn’t teach the student/child how to identify the true causes of their problems, and then find different ways of solving them.  Instead, it teaches one to (1) not get caught, and (2) “might makes right” (where “right” in this case is more about privilege and power than about correctness).
This kind of framework keeps behaviour regulation extrinsic – the child relies upon others – instead of intrinsic.  Even after the child has internalized the “you are a bad person” message and the “you deserve this” message, they still end up seeking approval from others for their good actions.  The process is still ultimately extrinsic.  All of this creates a state of perpetual rebelliousness and/or insecurity.  There’s no real moral growth.
Even when the teachers dragoon other students into the system as underlings, no one is really empowered to truly help themselves.  This is not how we teach respect.  Respect is earned, not demanded by authority.  Being respected and being controlling rarely happen simultaneously.
Secondly, such a system invariably puts the focus on what the rules are, rather than why we do what we do.  One has to be able to practice and to reflect upon how ideas work in different circumstances, in order to develop the internal moral framework that is necessary for maturity. Being able to generalise concepts across different circumstances is sometimes challenging for our autistic/Asperger’s children, and one can’t develop that if they are always being told what to do.
If parents and teachers are finding that their children and students are being “little lawyers”, then they should seek to find what in the system is making everyone so anxious that every decision needs questioning.  Because in truth, it is the system that is being questioned, more so than the authority!  Re-asserting one’s authority doesn’t resolve that, it just adds more friction.
We want a system that enables us to create plans for coöperating with and helping others, rather than focusing on punishments and rewards.  The problem with relying upon punishments and rewards is that they don’t help create the respect, responsibility and relationships for creating community that are our ultimate goals.
People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos.  This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.
When you’re hostile and suspicious, everything looks like dissent, everything looks like challenge, and everything looks like rebellion.
Even saying, “Hello”.

I Didn't Ask For That

“Boy, you’re asking for it!” The teen towers over me despite being a stair lower, and the fierce glower makes me flinch away, which moment is my undoing. The world spins as I am elbowed away, lurching drastically over the railing at the vertiginous two-story drop, then my footing slips and I am skidding down steps to crash on the midway landing. The herd of students storms past me, an impediment to their passage between classes. I didn’t ask for that, I protest silently as I taste blood, still unsure of what had precipitated the swiftly violent interaction in the first place.
“Well, if you’re going to choose to be irresponsible and leave your math book at school every day, then you’ve just made the decision to not have any reading time tonight,” declares my mother righteously. I meant to bring my algebra book home, really. I’m not trying to avoid the homework at all. I didn’t “choose” to forget my math book again. Nor am I deciding to forgo my favourite leisure activity. Not at all. In fact, I don’t remember being a part of any of that “decision” process whatsoever. I didn’t ask for that.
My graduate school advisor leans back in his desk chair and announces, “I need to know what your decision is.” I’m still numbly trying to absorb what-all his two page letter means. A few months earlier after my first research proposal meeting, I had described some of my learning difficulties to my committee members, and each had said they would help. But now the results of such difficulties are being flung back at me, described herein as deficiencies. He is informing me that I am being removed from a research Master’s degree. Decision? I have choices? Apparently so. “I don’t make snap decisions about important things,” I hedge, mostly because my brain’s freezing in shock at this unexpected turn of events. The hourly bell jangles out in the hallway, making me wince as usual, which in turn produces a twitch of annoyance in him at my “over-reaction”. “Well, let me know what you want,” he says by way of dismissal. After a few re-reads, the “decision” proves to be rather a dilemma between outright quitting the program (not mentioned in his letter, but implied) or taking a terminal degree. Which one did I “want”? I didn’t ask for that.
There is a seriously heavy, late-summer storm brewing outside, and the air is damp and prickly. I finished the daily reading lesson ten minutes ago and am squirming hyperactively around in my seat with nothing to do. My tights itch, and my dress sashes have come undone again, causing the calico to billow ticklishly. I’m six years old and in second grade, and have not yet learned how to fidget acceptably; “good sitting”, like “good penmanship”, is something that I struggle to achieve. I’m wobbling on my chair from sitting on an ankle, and leaned over sideways across my desktop with one arm rocking back and forth off the side, staring distractedly out the classroom window. Cumulus clouds are piling up into tumultuous towers and flattening at the top into an impressively green-grey anvil. An actinic far-violet flash of lightning rips from one end of the cloud to another, and impulse wins out again – I am plastered to the window to see more. “Andrea! Sit down in your chair.” The teacher trots me back to my assigned place, and no sooner than I get my behind on the chair seat, she clamps my shoulders to the chair back to emphasize how I am supposed to sit. “You really want to miss recess, don’t you? It’s reading time. You need to stay in and read your assignment.” But I’d already read the stupid story … spending half an hour more confined to my chair and reading it all over again, thus losing out my only opportunity to vent some energy and to go spinning on the playground carousel, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t ask for that.
Decisions? Choices? Hardly.
Choices are between things you want, or at least will accept. Situations like these aren’t even “forced choices”. Even the phrase “forced choices” is part of the problem. (A forced choice should really mean a situation more like, “Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to coconut or fudge ripple; the ice cream store closes in five minutes, so you need to decide now.”) It still implies volition upon the part of the person.
Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed.
Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self. The consequences are really decided by someone else, and the language is a distractor meant to bamboozle everyone. It’s doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation.
It’s also about obedience deceptively, attractively, cloaked as “responsibility”. If you’re not being submissive to someone else’s wishes, then you’re “choosing” to be irresponsible even if there is no malicious intent. The punishment chosen for the transgression is tagged as self-selected and self-imposed, when it’s anything but.
If you “choose” to have difficulties or misbehave, then you’ve “decided” to be punished by losing privileges like a much-needed recess, or having major plans derailed, (or if you’re a student at JRC, missing some of your daily food ration or getting zapped with electric shocks) or –
I didn’t ask for that.

The Crime of Punishment

The unfolding layers of cruel imprisonment and torture of students with mental/emotional problems and learning or developmental disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center as described in this report have created ongoing responses by horrified and angry posts by parents, professionals, and survivors of similar places (e.g. Kevin Leitch’s Autism Blog Web Design Blog, Mike Stanton’s blog Action for Autism, or Amanda’s blog Ballastexistenz).

I won’t list the litany of carefully crafted, systematic and officially sanctioned malfeasance described in the Report, which span a range of criminal, irrational, abusive, and generally mindf**king evils that are only more shocking for the fact that so many people seek to defend them as being sensible and necessary. You really need to read the report to understand that the anger generated by the JRC & its head Matthew Israel are far from over-reactions.

What I do want to bring up are my thoughts on the whole underlying paradigm of punishment that such institutions, and indeed much of society, are operating on. It’s not enough to shut down one place (and given the current political climate, that will be far more difficult than should be compared to other bureaucratic efforts). We have to understand how such things come about, and continue to pop up. Otherwise we’re just picking off mushrooms and not addressing the fact that the entire structure is rotting and permeated with fungal mycælium.

Once upon a time, long time ago, when people had problems in life (being sick or poor for example), these were seen as due to divine punishment for being sinful. Centuries later in more enlightened times, problems were seen as being due to the natural consequences of being sinful (a Renaissance, humanistic perspective). More modernly, problems were seen as resulting from people choosing to be sinful, so they therefore deserve punishment from other people or from God. (I’m speaking generally here, so history majors will have to keep their corrective twitches to themselves.)

All of these revolve around the idea that humans are inherently sinful – and if people have problems, it’s their fault. Because it’s their fault, they should have to deal with the consequences.

That sounds reasonable on the surface, but what it really means is that people are often being punished for having problems. E.g., if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy and sinful and deserve to be poor.

Furthermore, the “help” given to people often seeks to perpetuate the status quo – the person who is being the helper gets cosmic brownie points. Such “help” is about doing things to people rather than doing things with them; it reinforces power inequalities and objectifies people. It’s about maintaining these paradigms rather than empowering people.

In classroom situations, this kind of helping or behaviour “management” just creates tasks defined by what the giver (teacher, administrator, special education therapist) wants done, rather than by what the receiver actually needs, or is able more better suited to do. (If that doesn’t seem true, ask yourself if you ever had teachers who gave out pages of “busy work” that were neither useful nor needed, just to keep the students busy and quiet for the teacher’s benefit. Or, did you ever have to practice “skills” over and over even though you were never able to improve significantly, just because you “needed to” be able to do neat penmanship or work without an assistive device, nevermind that in the real world you would later rationally drop those tasks in favour of methods that were more functional.) Commands like, “You need to do thus-and-such,” are flags that should make us examine the situation more closely.

When the students fail to comply, the resulting punishment often teaches quite different lessons, not those about how to better manage one’s papers or how to mediate playground arguments, but rather lessons about power. “I’m bigger/ older/ in charge, so I can make you do what I want,” is the message actually learned.

A big problem is that the whole system seems sensible because it’s so entrenched, and because it’s easier to temporarily suppress certain behaviours by punishments (or coercing people with shiny rewards), than it is to identify and resolve the underlying problems that are causing the distress in the first place.

Sometimes that distress is the student’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. But when students act up from feeling powerless, what do the authorities then do? Clamp down even harder, create more restrictions, and more punishments. This is hardly a solution, and very much a self-perpetuating feedback loop that increases distress for everyone involved.

The worst kind of pedagogical punishment is making someone do a task that is otherwise supposed to benefit them. That is, if a student acts up by being oppositional or disruptive or fails to do the assignment because there is something they cannot do cognitively or physically, then the student is “taught a lesson” and punished by giving them more of the same kind of assignment. Learning should never be used in an aversive manner; the student then gets even more upset and frustrated and acts out and then becomes a “problem student”. The student is then being punished for having problems.

Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

One of the biggest challenges we face is not just shutting down localized hotspots of cruelty and injustice, but also of providing viable alternatives to replace the vacuum left behind. Otherwise we’re just plugging dikes with our thumbs.

andrea