In the school cafeteria

I saw some people eating over at the grocery dining area the other day. Some were just-barely adults, and others were of that great, vague realm of middle age. They were louder than necessary, sloppy, and left a mess. Not that my budget was going to let me buy a hot lunch to eat there anyway, but it would have been unpleasant to sit near them. I sighed inside; it “was like old times” and I wondered what had become of some of my former students.

When I worked with the secondary school students (ages 12-18), I often wished that in our smaller school cafeteria we had full table service — like Hogwarts — so we had a more home-style or nicer environment to teach and practice basic manners. No, seriously. Some of the students were fine, some were simply hungry kids who (being young) weren’t concerned about niceties, and some couldn’t help that they were uncoordinated or dyspraxic.

But all the students were all there because they had severe behavioral and emotional problems. And a good many either did not know, or did not care, how to eat neatly and politely. Instead, they went through a cafeteria line loudly, bumping into people, leaving behind a trail of dribbles around the serving bins, then dropped their possessions about the table and floor, eating noisily whilst conversing inconsiderately, and generally making themselves and the table a mess.

(Perhaps saddest was when someone despoiled a perfectly good piece of fruit by pencil-stabbing or bruising it. There were people there – students and staff – who would have gladly eaten a spare apple or orange. So we tried to intervene and rescue the produce for classroom fruit bowls that existed for the hungry.)

On the other hand, this was one of their few times for all the students to just relax, talk with friends, and recharge for the afternoon. Everyone needs opportunity to take a break, so we eased up from constantly supervising and redirecting, albeit still watching out for unsafe, disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.

But if there were something more like a real dining situation — instead of what amounted to a scramble at a fast-food joint — the following would have been the basic skills of politeness I would have them learn. And they are, very basic.

Note that these are mostly phrased as what TO do; this produces much better learning results than just telling what not to do.

  • When serving yourself in the cafeteria line, hold your bowl over the container of food; this way anything that falls out will go back into the container, not all over the other containers and the tray rail.
  • Set your possessions down quietly and neatly, do not slam them on the tabletop, nor use up more than your share of the table.
  • Drape your coat over the back of your chair, do not drop it on the floor.
  • Keep your legs by the chair, do not stick them way out under the table, nor out in the aisle.
  • Lean your forearms on the table if you want, but do not stick your elbows out sideways upon the table, nor sprawl your body on the table when people are eating.
  • Keep the book you’re reading close to you, not held way out in the middle of the table.
  • Ask for something to be passed; don’t grab by reaching across others.
  • Chew with your mouth closed. If you can’t, take smaller bites.
  • Use a knife and fork, or the fork edge to cut food into smaller bites.
  • Whole fruit or dipping-size pieces of vegetables may be eaten with the fingers; diced fruits and salad should be eaten with a fork.
  • Do not stick your fingers in sauces and lick them.
  • If you are dipping something in ketchup or other sauce, place that dish closest to you to prevent dribbling or leaning.
  • Use napkins to wipe your hands, not your clothing.
  • Avoid belching; burp quietly with a napkin over your mouth.
  • Swallow before talking.
  • Let others finish talking; do not interrupt.
  • Rather than insulting people, explain why you believe something different.
  • Everyone has different tastes; do not insult other’s taste in food.
  • If you do not want something (piece of fruit, unopened milk or juice carton), ask if anyone else would like to have it; do not abuse it or throw it away.
  • Before you leave the table, hold your tray underneath the edge of the table and use a napkin to wipe crumbs off the table and onto the tray. Do not leave the table messy, nor swipe the mess onto the floor.
  • If you ate greasy or sticky food, wash your hands with soap and water. No, sanitizer gel does not remove the mess, especially not the grunge under your nails.

Compatibly yours

“Ow!” Exclaimed my daugher, who was playing with her 4-month old son.  “He loves standing up, but he’s grabbing my glasses.  Or my hair.  And that hurts mummy, boo-boo.

She’d already given up wearing earrings.  But it was going to be a while before the lad could be taught “touch gently” for petting cats or family members.

“Well,” I offered, “you could always try Incompatible Behaviors.”  In the world of behavior modification, this is usually used in the sense of rewarding the preferred alternative.  But I was thinking in the more concrete sense, meaning, if you’re doing one thing, then you can’t do the other (undesired) thing.  “If you give him something else to hold onto, then he can’t grab your hair.”

This has proven so useful, she has wisely taken the idea to other situations.  At nap time, the lad is still so wound up that he gets agitated from playing with his hands.  So she gives him a stuffed animal or blanket to hold onto, and the babe’s able to calm down.

Now she’s discovered the joy that is watching a child learn new skills, especially as he practices sitting up and playing with the extra plastic measuring cups stored in an old plastic ice-cream tub.  “Today he learned that if he knocks the cups against the tub, they make noise!”

I chuckled, knowing what was coming up next, and we chorused in dismay, “Today he learned that if he knocks the cups against the tub, THEY MAKE NOISE!”

“And that’s why I never give anyone’s kids toys that make noises,” I nodded sagely.

“I’m going to just pass along some of those things that were handed along to us,” she confided.

As all parents know, if you give your children quiet toys, they will have to work imaginatively to figure out how to make noises with them.

News Bees

Our carpenter bees are happy, but the short-haired bumble became extinct in its native country several years ago.  Fortunately, immigrant populations survived in New Zealand, and are being re-introduced.  The value of native pollinators is being rediscovered as honeybee populations have dwindled. Find out how to prevent jet-lag in bees and more here in the Guardian.

Elephants are also endangered, and Kenyan populations are pushed to resources where farmers are also trying to survive.  Fortunately, researchers are working with the elephants’ (and bees’) natural behaviors.  A report on BBC News describes how hollow-log style beehives have been used on the continent for centuries, and are used as part of the fences. (Of course, the honeybees also give the farmers good crop pollination, and some honey and wax harvests, too.)

Insect news from my own garden to come soon!

B is for Bob, C is for –

“Eek, a bee!” yelped the little girl as her mother paid for some flowers at the nursery register.

“Oh, that’s just Bob; he can’t sting you.  He’s a carpenter bee.” I explained, holding an open hand up toward where Bob was doing loop-de-loops.  But my repeated explanations aside, most people were not buying Bob’s reported status as a gentlebee-ing.  Let’s face it, an inch-long bee flying around you is hardly subtle.

Not but a couple days later, I came in to work and found a patio-style citronella candle lit near the entrance. Our manager had lit it in hopes of deterring Bob, who had been joined by another male.  Like two World War 1 flying aces, they were staging aerial dogfights.  “They’re not out to get anyone,” I told the other employees, “it’s territorial.”  That didn’t mollify anyone, but fortunately Bob prevailed and his rival left the scene.

“Wow, that’s a BIG bumblebee!” exclaimed a customer.

“It’s a carpenter bee.  They have the shiny, dark abdomens, like a brand-new pair of carpenter jeans.  Bumbles are furry all over.  See the white on his face?  That means he’s a male.  The males can’t sting.”  I’ve never been stung by carpenter bees or bumbless, and have even petted them.

My current computer wallpaper is my photo of a female — isn’t she just adorable?! (more story below):

A large bee with a black head and abdomen, and a gold, furry thorax nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

A large bee with a black head & abdomen and a gold, furry thorax, nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

Carpenter bees (Hymenoptera, Family Apidae: Xylocopa virginica) get their name because they dig tunnels in dead wood.  They use these for rearing offspring, and for overwintering.  Painting wood is the easiest deterrent for preventing structures from being bored into.  I couldn’t see anything in the garden center “tent” that would be a great place for setting up housekeeping (the only wooden structures nearby were thin shipping pallets), so I figured that Bob had decided that the garden center was the ne plus ultra of food resources, with its thousands of blossoms.

Like other bees, carpenters are valuable as pollinators, and like orchardists, you can buy (or make) bee blocks in hopes of attracting some.  Once in a while the bees will take a short-cut and “rob” a flower by chewing through the base to get directly to the nectar. (‘nother pix, still more story)

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from Columbine flower

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from pink Columbine flower

While the males are hanging around being territorial, the females are busy stocking their offsprings’ larder with pollen & nectar balls.  Each of their several eggs gets its own foodball and wood-pulp partition.  Once the larva have hatched, eaten up their food, and metamorphosed into adults, they then chew through the wee shoji-screens, crawling over their siblings to go out and start the process over again.

Recently, Bob was nowhere to be seen.  Our manager explained that when he was cleaning up the other night, he realized that the broom made a great fly-swatter.  Apparently I looked dismayed, because he went on to explain that something unexpected happened the next day.  “Bob’s brother or cousin or friend or who-ever moved in, several of them!”

This made me laugh.  ” ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ There was an opening in the territory!”

But our story has a serendipitous ending.  As the days have grown hotter, our manager brought out a standing fan to help keep everyone cool as they stand by the register.  Apparently carpenter bees are befuddled — or bothered — by the steady stream of air, and they left to hang around elsewhere.

“Oh, that’s fabulous! You worked with their behavior, not against it.  You always get better results that way, whether it’s insects, students, or employees.  That was really clever.”

Down a hall, noisily

It’s amazing just how much hallways comprise the problem-solving part of my day, compared to the actual amount of time I am in them, instead of the classroom.

But in our program for secondary students with emotional and behavioral problems, hallways (like lunchrooms or busses) comprise that part of the space-time continuum that is just so fraught with issues.  Part of the reason for this is the somewhat unstructured quality of the time.

Sure, they are supposed to just go between the classrooms.  We don’t even have a full “passing period”, because allowing these students to loiter around the hallways or hang out together in the bathrooms just invites problems with bullying, making interpersonal or sometimes illegal deals, petty theft, tardiness and so on.  Instead, we just herd the troops to and fro, like so many wayward cats.

And still there’s all sorts of nonsense that goes on in the hallways: Read the rest of this entry »

Piques and Valleys

So, I’ve been rather absent from bloggery lately due to spending evenings sorting through vast boxes of paper archives, moving books, applying for jobs to keep a roof over our heads, or attempting to sleep off this virus. I now have removed a cubic meter of paperness from our house, and transferred a few hundred books from one room to another. I still have the virus (or maybe a second one, as our students have not the best hygiene), but not the second job.

(Now, if anyone is looking for an experienced secondary or college tutor or after-school care for special-needs children, let me know via andreasbuzzing care of my gmail account.)

But aside from all that, there have been some thought-provoking ups and downs in the news that I don’t want to let pass before they become “olds”:

In an brief article in the New York Times, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine studied some 11,000 third-grade students, and found that Read the rest of this entry »

How to Swat a Fly

Some of this is not breaking news, but some is.  When I was watching someone in another classroom in futile pursuit of said dastardly, dirty diptera, I realised that there is a lot of interesting science behind successful swatting.

Flies are hard to swat for a number of reasons.  They avoid predation by both sensory detection and behavioral responses.  With its large eyes, a fly can see nearly 360°, including behind itself.  This means that it’s nearly impossible to “sneak up” on a fly. Because an insect’s flicker fusion frequency is 250 Hertz or more (compared to the human 50), they are vastly more sensitive to motion. Flies can see a flyswatter coming at them, no matter how slow or fast you move it. As anyone who has ever examined their prey has noted, flies are also hairy.  These “hairs” (setae) make them sensitive to changes in ambient air speed and direction — they can feel the acceleration of the air from the pressure wave created by the flyswatter.

Michael Dickinson and others at the California Institute of Technology have recently teased out other details to the flys’ success.  They used high-speed imaging to discover that Read the rest of this entry »

School “Discipline”?

(Coffee-spew warning;
swallow beverage before reading.)

I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now, and then several things reached critical mass, including a comment by a tutee, the recent post on Alex Barton (“Mend the Link”), and some internet articles listing “common questions asked in teacher interviews”.

Oh, plus this wayfinding sign displayed on the end of a “stack” at a library. The numbers of course refer to the Dewey Decimal subject classification. I like to think that whomever printed up the sign appreciated the ten-tonne irony; I also wonder just how many people actually notice it.

(Post continues below picture)

Apparently one of those common teacher-interview questions runs along the lines of, “How do you maintain classroom discipline?”

Wow. That sort of phrasing gives me flashbacks of Read the rest of this entry »

Buzz Off!

No, “buzz off” does not mean that I am being grumpy and telling everyone to Go Away. There are apparently a lot of other people out there who are grumpy about Mosquitos, but not the insect kind. The story (like most) gets complex very fast.

So. There are some young people who hang out in front of shops or public areas and are annoying, even to the point of committing misdemeanors. This is hardly a new problem of urban settings; doubtless ancient Greek and Roman shopkeepers complained about much the same thing. In addition to the primary problems of what the yobbos / chavs / hooligans (pick your fave term) may engage in, there’s the secondary problem of their presence intimidating customers and driving away trade.

Of course, not all young people act like this. In fact, very, very few do. And young people, like people of other age groups, like to get together with their pals and socialise. Of course, when you’re young you don’t have your own place, and not everyone wants to hang around the living room where dad’s watching Top Gear or yet another history programme about some war or another. So kids hang around in parks, on sidewalks, in malls, and other public areas. And then people complain because shockingly, there are kids hanging around. Well, duh; few can afford to spend lots of cash at movie theatres or pool halls or video game parlors, and if you’re not spending, they don’t want you there.

Back in 2005, Howard Stapleton realised that he could use teens’ better hearing against them. In theory, young people can hear up to 20 kHz (20,000 Hertz), but as people age they lose this ability due to presbycusis. Although most older adults can pass a basic hearing exam with flying colors, such exams only test up to 8,000 Hz, because audiologists are concerned with how well people perceive common speech and environmental sounds. (This concept also assumes that those targeted have not had any hearing loss due to listening to loud music in vehicles, headphones, and / or concerts.) Thus, the Mosquito device was born.

According to a distributor’s description, these speakers broadcast a 17.5-18.5 kHz tone at 75 decibels. Although not damaging, the whine becomes very annoying after a couple of minutes, and those who can hear it usually leave after a few minutes, although the unit runs for 20 minutes before shutting off. It can be heard 15 meters / 50 feet away, with stronger models audible as far as 90 meters / 300 feet away.

The Mosquito device proved popular with a number of shopkeepers and other business owners; some 3500 units have been installed around the UK, to prevent young people from congregating outside of stores, rail stations, car parks, industrial areas, city parks, and even school grounds (used after hours). Now it’s being sold in the U.S. and Canada as well.

Naturally, there were protests about the use of the devices. The prototype was banned in its place of inception, Newport, South Wales. Although legal elsewhere, other groups have taken up complaint, and not just young people:

Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Children in Scotland, and the Scottish Youth Parliament fully support the campaign launched today in England against the use of the Mosquito device.

So too is Liberty, the National Youth Agency, the Children’s Commissioner for England, which is spearheading the Buzz Off campaign.

Frankly, I find the whole idea of using sonic deterrents as weapons (attack devices) against young people to be abhorrent. These things target and punish all young people present for the actions of a few. You get what you give, so how is being deliberately obnoxious supposed to encourage better social behavior in others? We don’t like it when people go around playing their music too loud, so why is it okay to broadcast high-pitched whines that are meant to get on people’s nerves?

Furthermore, the manufacturers and users assume that only young people can hear these sounds, and that simply isn’t true. I’m 47 and I can hear such frequencies (despite the tinnitus), and a 75 kHz noise is also pretty damn loud, even if it’s not technically at the damaging threshold. If I came across a shop that was using this sonic attack, the shopkeeper would certainly get an earful from me! There’s too much noise as it is, without adding gratuitous noise.

It’s not that I don’t sympathise with business owners and other citizens who are dealing with the effects of antisocial or criminal behavior. But this kind of antisocial retaliation hurts everyone, and is blatant discrimination.

Just Can’t Do

Wheelchair Dancer had a recent post where she was musing aloud about why a neighbor might keep refusing various opportunities “because she is a quad”. WCD and those commenting raised a variety of interesting possibilities to answer that question. It’s both a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, and reminded me of similar issues that I have encountered over the years. (What I am describing may or may not be the same kind of situation as what Wheelchair Dancer’s neighbor is dealing with.)

Granted, we all have limitations. Some of have have more limitations, and some of us have different limitations than most people. And yet, we have all encountered those people who get “stuck” on their limitations, well beyond the whole (initial) phase of learning to accept and cope with whatever the causes and effects are from those disabilities. They keep talking about what they CAN’T DO, not just as a practical reference to “no, that won’t work for me,” but as refutation to suggestions for a number of ordinary or alternative activities.

Trying to earnestly offer suggestions to such entrenched Can’t-Do frequently falls flat in a conversational game of “Yes-But”, leaving one feeling frustrated and eventually rather disinclined to continue offering suggestions.

Once in a while I run into this kind of thing with a tutee or student. Read the rest of this entry »

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, Read the rest of this entry »

“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 Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Owns What?


“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?”


“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!)


“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.



“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.)

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.

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