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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

The Plural of Testimonial is not __________.

Remember when you were a young school child and your class had the exciting event of a visiting speaker to the classroom? Later on after the presentation, your teacher then had the opportunity to use that event as the basis for an exercise on How To Write A Letter. Chances are the class’ letters went something like this:

Dear Mr Visitor,
Thank you for coming to our class to talk about blah.
It was very interesting.
Now we know lots of blah-blah-blah.
Yours truly,
A. Student*

Having been the adult recipient of such, I can vouch that there’s a not-so amazing consistency in the form that these letters take, and I’m not referring to the construction paper covers. Whenever a number of people are invited to write a document, and their efforts are in direct response to a series of questions, there is going to be a formulaic quality to the answers.

Requesting feedback on specific services in itself is not necessarily a biased thing; for example, when the employing colleges or inviting organisations ask the attendees for evaluations of instructors or guest speakers, there are specific factors about the presentation that are being assessed.

However, when eliciting responses one has to be careful to not slant the wording of the questions so the responses are not biased. Similarly, verbal requests for impromptu responses or exit surveys must likewise be worded carefully to prevent coaching.

It’s very rare that every client or conference attendee will fill out an evaluation form; the office responsible for creating evaluation summaries has to realize that such volunteers are going to be somewhat self-selecting, if for no other reason than the fact that those were the people who weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere else. On the other hand, a true evaluation has to look at all the all the responses returned. A cherry-picked group is never going to be representative of the entire cohort.

When looking at any kind of response document, there are shadows behind the discourse that merit critical analysis. These include the unwritten assumptions of the author, such as who they considered to be their audience, what they presume the audience to know, and what kinds of details were deemed necessary to include to support the statements given.

What is not included is also equally important. Unless the document is an expository theme or persuasive essay, there are beliefs about social reality that are built in the framework of the discourse and are not explicitly mentioned.

These beliefs are assumed to be mutually held and self-evident. (You know, the sorts of assertions that when challenged, provoke a, “Well of course we had to …” response.) Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these world-views, because they are so encompassing, not unlike like fish being unaware that water is “wet”.

I don’t claim to be a forensic linguist, but as an author and behavioural observer, the following curiosities from the Judge Rothenberg Center’s Web site (the 18 testimonial letters and excerpted quotes all referred to therein as “comments” by JRC parents) certainly caught my attention.

Like the children’s thank-you letters, there’s a formulaic quality to them. It shows through in the sentence structure and word choices. Theoretically it’s possible that those letters represent the way the parents always compose missives; we naturally lack known writing samples for comparison. And yet … one gets the impression that there are leading questions that yield repeated patterns of content.

Our child has X and did YYY. No place else helped him.
JRC uses the “GED” skin shock device.
Now he is controllable. The “GED” is the answer!
He has been there for years. We are very happy.

Okay, that’s a trifle simplistic; the testimonials that are letters are longer. My example is a distillation of quotes.

On the amazon.com site, you have probably seen the term "statistically improbable phrases", which refers to those constructions and idioms specific to the particular book being described. They are phrases that jump out of the text because they’re not the sorts of things commonly found in writing.

In this kind of critical analysis, if a writer inserts a few "twenty-dollar words" when the rest of the letter is just "fifty-cent words", they stand out. They are statistically improbable phrases, or compositional outliers. There will always be some terms that people will just pick up from interactions with staff (such as using the term “GED”). But in verbal and written communication most lay people don't go around using jargon specific to a particular discipline or industry. When those "twenty-dollar words" show up, well, one gets the impression that there likely are leading questions or requests guiding the effort. A prime example of this would be the Shields letter, which is composed of a series of declarative sentences, but also includes the expanded technical phrase: “GED” skin shock device.

Surprisingly, JRC is not just a temporary location for controlling children with behaviour problems; it’s also an institution for lifetime confinement. Some of the inmates have been there for over a decade, at least as reckoned by the dates of their parents’ letters.

“We are the parents of a 35 yr. old autistic adult. He has been in this program since he was 19.” (Shields)
A 32-year old autistic adult has been in this place under the GED aversive system for over ten years. (Soucy)
Yet another person has been there for eleven years, also past legal majority. (Slaff)

Another parent describes their child as benefiting from the GED (or rather, “GED” is the typed word repeatedly pasted over the handwritten note), because “it helps her to eat better, exercise better, learn better, socialize better, and enjoy life better”. ( Bognar) Personally I have to wonder how being the recipient of repeated electric shock punishment enables one to “enjoy life better”.

Obviously, JRC feels the need to assert and validate the necessity for using the “GED” skin shock device; there are people such as myself who strongly disagree with the necessity and efficacy of using punishment. Lots of companies use testimonial letters to show off their satisfied customers. But this isn’t about carpet cleaning. This is about people trying to convince us that systematic, repeated punishment under inescapable conditions, i.e. torture, is both beneficial and necessary.

Now, what’s one of our favourite fallacy flatteners? The plural of anecdote is not data. Or in this case, the plural of testimonial is not validation.


* Not to be confused with the author of Student’s t-distribution, who was actually Mr W. S. Gosset, a chemist at Guinness Breweries (statistics classes aren’t completely dull!)

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.