Invisible disability and classroom behaviour management: an analogy

Image shows a tabletop covered in brightly coloured paper and craft materials, overload with purple text stating ‘punishment doesn’t teach skills’.

Having spent far too many hours, weeks and years posting in online parenting forums, a regular feature is a teacher or parent complaining about the behaviour of an autistic child in the classroom. Having been the parent of ‘that autistic child’ being complained about, I have always found those kind of posts hard to deal with. I know that I did everything I could to support my son to learn the skills he needed, and to help him find better ways to communicate his feelings and interact with his peers. But it takes time, and it requires support from teaching staff and understanding from other parents and children.

Autistic and other disabled children have as much right to be in a mainstream classroom as their non-autistic and non-disabled peers. Legal responsibilities under education and equality laws require mainstream schools (in all but exceptional cases) to support children’s needs.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is that autism is an ‘invisible disability’, where autistic people like me (or my son or maybe you or your child) look like any other ordinary person. You can’t see my autism. You can’t see the things that make me autistic. You can only see my reactions to things. You might think that those reactions, those behaviours, are my autism, but they’re not. They’re just what I do, not who I am.

Getting support for any disabled child in school is often a battle, and I don’t want to suggest that children with more visible disabilities receive perfect or even ‘good enough’ provision, because far too often they do not. However, when a child has a hidden disability, and when they exhibit behaviour that looks just like ‘naughty behaviour’, it can be hard to get parents and teaching staff to understand that punishing the child for manifestations of their disability will not be helpful.

Some time ago, I wrote a reply on a forum where a parent was fuming that an autistic child in her child’s class was not being punished for ‘bad behaviour’. Because the child ‘looked normal’ the parent was pressing for the child to be ‘treated like everyone else’. I wanted to make the point that it was a futile request, and that what the child needed was to be taught the skills he needed, because punishment does not teach skills.

This is what I said:

Imagine the child had a different disability, say one that requires him to use a wheelchair. He keeps running over children’s feet and bumping into children, hurting them. He might have broken their toes or knocked them into furniture. It’s not because he wants to, but what if nobody has taught him how to steer and use the brakes? The child you are complaining about, like many other autistic children, needs to be taught to steer and stop his impulsive and explosive behaviours. Just like punishing the child learning to use his wheelchair won’t teach him how to steer and stop the wheelchair, punishing an autistic child for lashing out and exploding won’t teach him how to steer and stop his reactions. Someone needs to take the time to teach, model and practise appropriate ways to communicate and interact.

Punishment doesn’t teach skills.

5 thoughts on “Invisible disability and classroom behaviour management: an analogy

  1. Hi Paula! you have great way to describe autism and special needs.I am not native English speaker and I really like the way you describe things.You do it so clever,it will help me a lot to advocate my kids in English.I so like it,I feel what you are saying and what you write with my whole being.I am going to follow your post from now.You made it great and mastered the way of describing in unique way.

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  2. In a nutshell this is at the heart of so many problems in mainstream schools. An endemic lack of understanding. Sadly I’ve come to the conclusion that my autistic daughter will never get the support and understanding she desperately needs in mainstream school, she’ll get blamed, labelled and forced to ‘mask’ for the entire time at the expense of her mental health and overall wellbeing. She’ll be too anxiously and depressed to learn. I can’t advocate for her needs 6 hours a day, and she is too young ang afraid to stand up to adults who are ignorant. I can’t change a system that is so fundamentally flawed. I’m exhausted.

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    1. It is exhausting. What continues to anger me most is that quite often a few simple, cheap, creative and flexible changes can make a huge difference, but schools can be so inflexible and rigid that our kids end up needing loads more support. It is really hard both for the child and us parents, especially when we can see what’s going on and everyone else seems oblivious. But there are schools who do well, so there’s no reason why all schools can’t do well (if they want to…).

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