Saturday, September 13, 2008

Isolation: It's not punishment; it's "removal for reinforcement"

Reposted from Families Against Restraint and Seclusion
Commentary by Jennifer Searcy
Co-Founder/Contributing Editor
Families Against Restraint and Seclusion/PA Families Against Restraint and Seclusion
August 2007

In Response to "School Expands on Mission to Aid Autistic Children" from the Boston Globe:

There are a few upsetting things about this article. First is that this school seems to think it's ok to place children with autism in isolation rooms, because after all, they're autistic. They can't be expected to be treated with the same dignity and understanding as "neurotypical" or even other nondisabled children, because they're "autistic" (sarcasm fully intended).

For the record, "autistics" aren't the problem; it's individuals who don't know how to communicate with them that's a problem - either unintentionally or deliberately - and that's understanding that a child with autism may react with aggression when met with aggression. It's because the people who worked with this little girl refuse to learn how to speak "her language" [credit to Amanda Baggs, a "nonverbal" adult with autism] that this little girl is punished for behaviors directly related to her disorder, which, by the way, is illegal.

Next, how is "isolation" therapeutic in this incidence? The little girl in question has been identified as having difficulty with transitions, as do many idividuals with autism. As a person with autism, she also has difficulty communicating in a way that "neurotypicals" understand, and so uses "behaviors" to communicate. If they know she has "a little trouble with transitions" and communicates the feeling of discomfort, unreadiness, or unpreparedness by "acting out," why aren't they using that knowledge to develop a "functional behavior assessment" to determine what "positive behavioral interventions" and techniques could be used to ease her into transitions, such as the use of a timer or countdowns, frequent verbal reminders, a pictorial schedule which she personally can use (PECS, etc.) or other techniques that are proven to be effective in addressing transition issues, and provide her with alternatives to communicating her needs, such as how to say she isn't ready to "transition," or maybe she just needs more time to process what was asked of her, rather than adult, teacher-enforced isolation, which research does not prove to be as effective as positive behavioral interventions, interventions which are to be used in accordance with IDEA law?

Using isolation is not going to address two of her core deficits: a problem with changes in routine and communication. How is she ever going to be a productive member of society if she's not given the "tools" or "skills" to become better adapted to change? No, let's just treat her like a common criminal and lock her up in this tiny room until SHE calms down.

Putting her in this room may only be reinforcing the very behaviors they wish to "extinguish." Maybe she's come to associate transitions with isolation, and so communicates her fears the only way she knows how, by exhibiting "behaviors" relating to the natural "fight or flight" instinct, or maybe she's communicating by exhibiting "behaviors" to "explain" that she's not appropriately prepared for a change in routine at that time, but maybe would be with appropriate preparation; instead, they "treat" her "behaviors," her attempts at "communication," with isolation. They've said it themselves, "removal for reinforcement." They are using isolation to "reinforce" negative behaviors instead of "reinforcing" and "rewarding" positive behaviors. This child is destined for failure under this plan.

I'm tired of children and adults with autism being blamed for their "behaviors." Those "behaviors" are their way of communicating with us. Are they always appropriate? NO. Can we always figure out what they're trying to communicate? NO. Can we give them tools and skills and other methods to communicate more effectively? YES!!! But we "neurotypicals" who work with children with autism also need to take ownership of OUR OWN ACTIONS and yes, even OUR INABILITY to understand what they're trying to say, THEN we will see change for the better. It's time to stop "passing the buck" for OUR inadequacies and blaming individuals with autism.

Sorry, but if this school wants to be the "best," they need to try harder and stop punishing kids with autism by putting them into seclusion. Sounds like they're doing a lot of things right, but they also have a ways to go.

Note about the author:

Jennifer Searcy is the mother of four daughters, ages seven through 13. Her nine year old daughter was diagnosed with epilespy at 15 months and PDDNOS by age 2 1/2. This daughter was illegally and inappropriately restrained in a public school on October 17, 2006 at age 7.

She is also a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, holding a bachelor of science degree in Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in psychology, and was a co-founder of Families Against Restraint and Seclusion and Pennsylvania Families Against Restraint and Seclusion. She is currently the Founder and Director of Public Policy and Affairs for The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

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