Students with autism need targeted attention – not a cage

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder need targeted support and funding to suit their individual needs and interests. from

A review has been announced into school policies in Canberra after it was reported that a school was restraining a child with autism in a cage-like structure. Former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes said this was not an isolated incident, and my research and time spent in schools attests to this.

I worked with one child whose restraint had an innocent genesis, but over time the teacher was incapable of coping with the student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the innocent mechanism became harmful.

A “time-out room” was provided for the child, which is important for children with ASD because they can suffer from sensory overload and need a place to calm down.

Initially he was invited to go to the room with the door open when he was feeling overwhelmed. As his behaviour escalated over time, due to a failure to understand his needs, he began to be sent to the room. After a time the door was closed and eventually the child was locked in the room.

One day his parent came to pick him up and found him in the room bloodied from hitting his head against the wall in frustration and anger.

Why are children being confined?

Keeping a child confined is clearly not an acceptable way of coping with students with special needs, so why does it continue to happen?

When a child is restrained at school, at home, or anywhere for that matter, it’s often a cry for help. It’s a sign of desperation, of not knowing. Teachers are often unsure what to do, needing to protect themselves, their assistants and the other students and to comply with disability legislation.

They often don’t have time to carefully plan and tailor an intervention for a particular child, so they take bits and pieces of what they have heard about the need for safe boundaries, reduction of sensory overload and inclusion of the child in the classroom.

Unfortunately, in some situations this has resulted in teachers confining students, which is a serious misunderstanding of the use of a time-out room or safe space.

This would be devastating enough for any child, let alone one who had already had so much difficulty at school. A psychiatrist who saw him after the incident diagnosed “relational trauma” brought on by people he should have been able to trust locking him away against his will instead of helping him.

What needs to happen to ensure this stops

Students with ASD need a more tailored approach, focusing on their strengths and interests rather than their behaviour. Teachers need special instruction in how to deal with these students, with input from someone who will work with them on the ground – not tell them what to do from a theoretical point of view and then walk away and leave them to it. All training needs to focus on the student in question and their specific needs.

An example could be to create a quiet withdrawal area at the back of the room, with soft cloths, to create sanctuary and reduce stress when needed, yet still allow the child to hear and see what is going on in the classroom. Entry to this area is always the choice of the child; they are free to come and go as they please.

Focus on the child’s interests, not their behaviour

With the child in the scenario above I found I was able to get on his wavelength by finding out what he was interested in, which turned out to be art.

He ended up illustrating a story I wrote for him about a magic helper: a little wooden knight who came to help a boy when ever he needed it. The boy would give the little knight some magic sunflower seeds and he would wake up and come to the rescue. Over time his stress levels reduced and, as a result, so did the stress levels of those around him.

In this child’s case the key was taking an interest in his drawing, but for other young people it has been ice-skating, tennis or photography. In one case the “quiet area” we devised at the back of the classroom ended up being a “racetrack area” and lunchtime club.

In all cases, once the special interest was identified, relationships formed and the young person engaged, there was an opportunity to link back to the curriculum and more conventional tasks.

As an example, numeracy lessons could be focused on racing cars, using lap times and model car and racetrack dimensions. Literacy could use illustrations of a text shown to others.

The special interest becomes the focus of an integrated curriculum based on theme. Activities need to be engaging and meaningful, then gradually other aspects of the curriculum can be introduced.

I have seen this approach work time and again and it could easily be implemented on a wider scale if we took a more individualised approach. Sure it would be costly in the beginning, but it’s not as great a cost as putting a child in a cage.