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.

Guest post: Dear husband, I need your help…

image shows coffee in a blue cup and saucer next to a spiral bound notebook and pen on a wooden surface, with ‘dear husband, I need your help…’ in white lower case text over the centre of the image

Relationships between autistic and non-autistic people can be tricky, the different ways we express ourselves and our different needs can, at times, make it harder to support each other. Many of us autistics find it hard to verbally explain what we really need, especially when we are most distressed. Here, Lucy* writes a letter to her husband, the day after she’s had a meltdown, explaining how he can help her next time.

Dear Husband,

I wanted to talk to you about yesterday, but I don’t want to go getting all upset again so I thought I’d write it down. I write so much better than I can talk.

I have been so much better lately, not being so anxious, and I don’t want one silly incident to spoil all the progress and start me getting all obsessive and anxious again.

But my baseline anxiety is already higher than normal with going back to work and moving house, which means it is going to take less to tip me over into panic. And there’s not an awful lot I can do about that.

Yesterday, I admit it, it turns out I did overreact. But telling me I’m overreacting while I’m that upset isn’t going to help me calm me down. All that happens is I start to argue with you. I get physical symptoms from a panic attack, mainly because it reminds me of the times when things haven’t been ok, and then my brain starts to look for reasons why I’m panicking. The physical symptoms happen first, I’m not thinking myself ‘into it’.

As for preventing it from happening in the future, I will try phoning you. I don’t want to talk to whoever’s kickstarted the anxiety, because I’ve inadvertently upset people too many times by doing that. And it’s ok you saying ‘it won’t upset them’ but I thought that so many times in the past and it did, and then I’m the bad guy.

Realistically, I have Asperger’s. One of the symptoms is impaired communication. It’s not fair to expect me to take the whole responsibility for ensuring that we don’t get crossed wires, or that I don’t upset people without meaning to.

So I’d like you to do a couple of things for me.

Firstly, when these things happen, I’d like you to do the communicating for me. You have the social awareness, the filter, and the energy to put into not upsetting or offending other people. I don’t.

Secondly, I want you to try agreeing with me. Out loud. Instead of saying or implying that I’m over reacting. If you’re not disagreeing, I can’t argue with you and get even more worked up. Besides, there’s been times when you have been ‘on my side’ but keeping quiet for whatever reason and I interpret that as you disagreeing or being mad at me or something. If I’m in the wrong, there’s ways and means of talking to me about it and being stubborn when I’m upset isn’t the time. Let me calm down and then discuss it. If you can’t agree with what I’m saying because you’re sure I’m in the wrong, you could try saying things like ‘I can see you’re really upset/anxious’

Thirdly, the more I try and hold things in and not get upset, the harder it is until I blow. It’s like a coke bottle- every time something makes me anxious it’s like shaking it up. Eventually when you take that lid off there’s going to be an explosion. I need help to let it out a bit at a time. But if there is an explosion, shouting at the coke not to spill isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference. Once it’s started, it can’t be stopped. You just need to avoid getting covered, wait for the explosion to stop, then get mopping up. Give me a hug, I need that input sometimes to help me calm down. And encourage me to cry and let it out- if I don’t it’s storing up pressure for the next time.

I know that’s asking a lot of you, and it seems like I’m trying to avoid taking any responsibility for my own behaviour, but that’s not the case. Just that when I’m that upset, I’m not thinking clearly (if at all). I’m running on instinct. The priority has to be for me to calm down before I can think about what’s happened and how we can avoid it in future.

And at least I didn’t break anything last night. Small steps!

Lucy x

*name changed to protect privacy