Being Unruly

On Kevin’s blog, a former employee of the Judge Rotenberg Center, “kml”, described how one autistic student was subjected to electric shocks via GED because he would greet people arriving at the classroom by saying, “Hello”.  (The rationale being that the student’s actions were “disruptive”.)

Given that some parents spend a lot of time helping their autistic children develop verbal and social skills, this is especially heart-wrenching.

An authoritative, punitive approach doesn’t teach the student/child how to identify the true causes of their problems, and then find different ways of solving them.  Instead, it teaches one to (1) not get caught, and (2) “might makes right” (where “right” in this case is more about privilege and power than about correctness).

This kind of framework keeps behaviour regulation extrinsic – the child relies upon others – instead of intrinsic.  Even after the child has internalized the “you are a bad person” message and the “you deserve this” message, they still end up seeking approval from others for their good actions.  The process is still ultimately extrinsic.  All of this creates a state of perpetual rebelliousness and/or insecurity.  There’s no real moral growth.

Even when the teachers dragoon other students into the system as underlings, no one is really empowered to truly help themselves.  This is not how we teach respect.  Respect is earned, not demanded by authority.  Being respected and being controlling rarely happen simultaneously.

Secondly, such a system invariably puts the focus on what the rules are, rather than why we do what we do.  One has to be able to practice and to reflect upon how ideas work in different circumstances, in order to develop the internal moral framework that is necessary for maturity. Being able to generalise concepts across different circumstances is sometimes challenging for our autistic/Asperger’s children, and one can’t develop that if they are always being told what to do.

If parents and teachers are finding that their children and students are being “little lawyers”, then they should seek to find what in the system is making everyone so anxious that every decision needs questioning.  Because in truth, it is the system that is being questioned, more so than the authority!  Re-asserting one’s authority doesn’t resolve that, it just adds more friction.

We want a system that enables us to create plans for coöperating with and helping others, rather than focusing on punishments and rewards.  The problem with relying upon punishments and rewards is that they don’t help create the respect, responsibility and relationships for creating community that are our ultimate goals.

People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos.  This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.

When you’re hostile and suspicious, everything looks like dissent, everything looks like challenge, and everything looks like rebellion.

Even saying, “Hello”.


I Didn’t Ask For That

“Boy, you’re asking for it!” The teen towers over me despite being a stair lower, and the fierce glower makes me flinch away, which moment is my undoing. The world spins as I am elbowed away, lurching drastically over the railing at the vertiginous two-story drop, then my footing slips and I am skidding down steps to crash on the midway landing. The herd of students storms past me, an impediment to their passage between classes. I didn’t ask for that, I protest silently as I taste blood, still unsure of what had precipitated the swiftly violent interaction in the first place.

“Well, if you’re going to choose to be irresponsible and leave your math book at school every day, then you’ve just made the decision to not have any reading time tonight,” declares my mother righteously. I meant to bring my algebra book home, really. I’m not trying to avoid the homework at all. I didn’t “choose” to forget my math book again. Nor am I deciding to forgo my favourite leisure activity. Not at all. In fact, I don’t remember being a part of any of that “decision” process whatsoever. I didn’t ask for that.

My graduate school advisor leans back in his desk chair and announces, “I need to know what your decision is.” I’m still numbly trying to absorb what-all his two page letter means. A few months earlier after my first research proposal meeting, I had described some of my learning difficulties to my committee members, and each had said they would help. But now the results of such difficulties are being flung back at me, described herein as deficiencies. He is informing me that I am being removed from a research Master’s degree. Decision? I have choices? Apparently so. “I don’t make snap decisions about important things,” I hedge, mostly because my brain’s freezing in shock at this unexpected turn of events. The hourly bell jangles out in the hallway, making me wince as usual, which in turn produces a twitch of annoyance in him at my “over-reaction”. “Well, let me know what you want,” he says by way of dismissal. After a few re-reads, the “decision” proves to be rather a dilemma between outright quitting the program (not mentioned in his letter, but implied) or taking a terminal degree. Which one did I “want”? I didn’t ask for that.

There is a seriously heavy, late-summer storm brewing outside, and the air is damp and prickly. I finished the daily reading lesson ten minutes ago and am squirming hyperactively around in my seat with nothing to do. My tights itch, and my dress sashes have come undone again, causing the calico to billow ticklishly. I’m six years old and in second grade, and have not yet learned how to fidget acceptably; “good sitting”, like “good penmanship”, is something that I struggle to achieve. I’m wobbling on my chair from sitting on an ankle, and leaned over sideways across my desktop with one arm rocking back and forth off the side, staring distractedly out the classroom window. Cumulus clouds are piling up into tumultuous towers and flattening at the top into an impressively green-grey anvil. An actinic far-violet flash of lightning rips from one end of the cloud to another, and impulse wins out again – I am plastered to the window to see more. “Andrea! Sit down in your chair.” The teacher trots me back to my assigned place, and no sooner than I get my behind on the chair seat, she clamps my shoulders to the chair back to emphasize how I am supposed to sit. “You really want to miss recess, don’t you? It’s reading time. You need to stay in and read your assignment.” But I’d already read the stupid story … spending half an hour more confined to my chair and reading it all over again, thus losing out my only opportunity to vent some energy and to go spinning on the playground carousel, wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t ask for that.

Decisions? Choices? Hardly.

Choices are between things you want, or at least will accept. Situations like these aren’t even “forced choices”. Even the phrase “forced choices” is part of the problem. (A forced choice should really mean a situation more like, “Okay, you’ve narrowed it down to coconut or fudge ripple; the ice cream store closes in five minutes, so you need to decide now.”) It still implies volition upon the part of the person.

Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed.

Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self. The consequences are really decided by someone else, and the language is a distractor meant to bamboozle everyone. It’s doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation.

It’s also about obedience deceptively, attractively, cloaked as “responsibility”. If you’re not being submissive to someone else’s wishes, then you’re “choosing” to be irresponsible even if there is no malicious intent. The punishment chosen for the transgression is tagged as self-selected and self-imposed, when it’s anything but.

If you “choose” to have difficulties or misbehave, then you’ve “decided” to be punished by losing privileges like a much-needed recess, or having major plans derailed, (or if you’re a student at JRC, missing some of your daily food ration or getting zapped with electric shocks) or –

I didn’t ask for that.

The Crime of Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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