There was Jewel, scrunched in the corner of the principal’s office, face to the wall. I had been called to the school that morning and told there had been “an incident.” I tapped my then-second-grader on the shoulder, and as she turned to me she growled, her face unrecognizable, behaving as if she didn’t recognize me. How had it gotten to this point?
The “incident” became a turning point for us, and put into motion events that ultimately led to Jewel getting the services and support she needed through her public school district. Because the transition to middle school has gone pretty well so far, I have been thinking a lot about the “what if’s” and want to share the story as a way of helping others still struggling.
By second grade, Jewel had been assessed and was on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for “autistic-like behaviors” with the school district, receiving services since preschool. The then-principal was tough but fair, and Jewel had lucked out with teachers, especially an open-hearted first-grade teacher who helped her flourish. But the RSP (Resource Specialist Program) teacher at the school was assigned to the job as a second career, and she had little experience, training or intellectual curiosity. One of Jewel’s other aides, her speech teacher, “got it,” and he and I and another aide worked together on a “decision tree” to craft some accommodations and goals for her IEP.
Things changed at the school as Jewel entered second grade. There was a new principal, who appeared to not be the least bit versed in special education. She also was actively hostile to learning anything more, saying it was a general education environment and “behaviors” such as disobedience would not be tolerated.
Jewel’s second-grade teacher had told us at the start of the year, “I have never had an autistic kid in one of my classes.” Knowing this was statistically impossible, I replied, “No, you’ve had autistic kids, you just never knew it.” She had been teaching the same way for decades and was one of those one-size-fits-all instructors: books had to be put away in desks in the same exact order by each student, and the kids had to pick up the floor around their desk every day. Jewel saw no reason for all the books to match in all the desks and, as a budding fashionista, found it a grave injustice that she should be required to go down on all fours in her beautiful dresses to clean the floors every day.
Faced with such a “my way or the highway” teacher, Jewel chose the highway. For autistic kids, with their sensory issues, non-neurotypical thinking and social deficits, it takes a lot of mental training and strength to sit in one place, under fluorescent lights, and pay attention and process commands quickly and accurately, and all the while tune out the background noise, whether it be mental or physical (kids drumming their fingers or kicking the desks in front of them, and all the “mouth noises,” as Jewel calls them, that come from fidgety elementary schoolers).
This can cause a child to escalate to a four or five on the scale commonly used to monitor kids and their moods. All it would take is one more demand from the teacher when Jewel had yet to process the last one, and the flight-or-fight response would kick in. The teacher, who was used to giving multi-step directions after so many years without slowing down, would make that one more demand. And Jewel, more of a lover than a fighter, would choose flight, bolting out of her seat and running out the classroom door (they call this “eloping”).
By mid-October, only a month or so into the school year, Jewel was eloping with frequency. And the principal, on at least one occasion, was giving chase. It must have been quite the scene … my girl doing her slow gallop around the school, with the new sheriff in town in hot pursuit in heels. Here’s a little tip: don’t feed into children’s “fight or flight” responses … they’ll just think, “Game on!” and want to make the principal chase them every day.
The principal began to threaten Jewel with suspension, sometimes in front of other children. The speech teacher and I (quaintly now, thinking back on it) suggested putting a stop sign on the inside of the classroom door, instead of addressing the larger issue. WHAT was making her bolt?
It came to a head that October day. Jewel got overwhelmed in class, a nearly daily occurrence by then. The principal and I had had a fairly heated phone discussion about her threats of suspension in front of others, and I had told her that I wanted to be present if she felt the need to discipline Jewel. When Jewel had asked me what she should do if the principal tried to talk to her alone in her office, I had said there would be no way that would happen and to “kick up a fuss” if it did. Bad move by mom.
It did happen. The principal insisted on talking to Jewel alone in her office, and Jewel kicked up a fuss. Throwing herself to the floor by the front office staff, she screamed, “No, my mom told me not to talk to you.” That’s when I was called.
It took me the whole weekend to get Jewel back to herself; it is the only time I have been scared she might not be able to “snap back” out of an escalation. The principal dug in her heels and insisted on suspension, which I knew would be seen as a reward instead of a punishment to Jewel (“Stay home with mom instead of go to school? Sign me up!”). To get Jewel the “free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment” (FAPE) that federal and state law requires, we enlisted the help of the school district. After much back and forth, by January of her second-grade year Jewel was transferred to another school that had a special, “push-in” program for autistic children. She flourished there, and is in that same program at the middle school. We know we are extremely fortunate that this was an option.
But what about the next non-neurotypical child at her old school? That’s why everyone with a vested interest in education needs to get past the “what” and to the “why.” The easy part is for a teacher or principal to tell, sometimes in great detail, what your child did; the hard part is to figure out what prompted your child to do that.
Parents and school officials need to look at the causes, what is called “antecedents” by therapists and others, to keep children from getting to a four or five on the escalation scale of five. To determine these antecedents, a “functional behavior assessment” needs to be done. It looks beyond the behavior itself at the purpose behind the behaviors, and serves as the basis for a “behavior intervention plan,” which is a separate plan but included in the IEP team process.
Once the “why” is determined, then the IEP team can come up with modifications and accommodations. These can include, for instance, built-in short breaks throughout the day, a teacher slowing it down or checking back with the student, visual cues on the desks (most autistic kids need visual reminders), preferred seating near like peers, classroom “jobs” to build confidence, privacy boards, acceptance that it’s OK that books are put away differently or some kids might want a broom instead of crawling on the floor … the list can go on forever.
I didn’t know all this back then. I wish I had.