Call it happenstance, serendipity, synchronicity, the alignment of the planets, or just plain luck - it took a lot of unexpected circumstances to land me in a career that turned out to be a perfect fit for me; one that I still cling to as I approach eight decades of life on this earth. Unless you are as old as I am, I don't think you can begin to imagine how little we knew about autism - or related "differences" in the way we are wired - back in the mid-1960's.
It was only in retrospect that I realized the article about "Joey, the Mechanical Boy," presented in one of my college courses, was an introduction to what would become my lifetime career path. I really do not think the term "autism" was ever used at that time. It may be hard to believe, but the whole concept of "special education" was just being born at about the same time I finished my Masters degree program in what was then called "Behavioral Disabilities."
Big clue there: We saw kids who were "different" as needing our intervention because their behavior was a problem. Our job as educators, and indeed parents as well, was to remedy this problem, or more likely a whole set of problems. In my first blog postings I have written about some of my early experiences (http://grandmacharslessonslearned.blogspot.com/2009/05/whats-big-deal-about-iq-anyhow.html or http://grandmacharslessonslearned.blogspot.com/2009/03/special-education-in-early-years.html ). Today I want to focus on what I have learned about behaviorism, or behavior modification as it was called in the early years of my on-the-job education.
After taking a few years off of teaching to start my family (four kids in five years, just in case I haven't included that chapter of my life here in this blog - now all are in their fifties, with kids and even grandkids of their own), I started working part-time at a small, private residential facility for kids with the label of "childhood schizophrenia" or "severe autism." The kids were all between the ages of six and 21, and I was hired as a teacher, but quickly found myself immersed in a program that - of necessity - focused almost entirely on managing some extremely challenging behaviors. Whatever academic instruction occurred was clearly a sideline activity.
Keeping things as simple as possible, we used basic rewards and punishments to deal with anything from severe self-abuse or aggression to simple non-compliance, aided in our efforts by a variety of heavy-duty medications such as Haldol, Thorazine, and Mellaril. For behavior we designated as "good" a resident could earn a few M&M's or Doritos, along with lots of verbal praise, and for "bad" behavior, there were loss of privileges, time-outs or even some time in the well-padded and infamous "Quiet Room." As with academic instruction, there wasn't a lot of "good" behavior going on and all too many of those treats I kept in my pockets ended up in my mouth - leading to a weight gain I have been dealing with ever since.
Major FAIL #1 --- I was brand new at the time, and "Rory" - a tall, thin, older teen - had an unacceptable habit of speaking in language that needed to be extinguished. I was helping out in an arts and crafts class, assigned to helping Rory glue popsicle sticks together to make a basic structure of some kind. I was told to give lavish praise when he was on-task and to ignore all of his repetitive use of blue words, trying to get my attention. Over and over again, he glanced over at me and smiled as he said, "f****er, s**t, a**hole" and I ignored him every single time. When he was momentarily quiet, or when he managed to attach one of those sticks appropriately, I never failed to praise him. Class was over in about 30 minutes, and I was exhausted. I quickly retreated to the staff break room to take a few deep breaths. When I emerged from the break room, I almost literally bumped into Rory, now walking toward me in the hallway wearing only his socks. Bingo! He got me! I totally failed to ignore him this time, You win, Rory.
Just a few years later, I was hired by a public school where all the students were considered to be in need of special education, a segregated facility where the kids were living at home and transported by bus from all over our county. A particularly challenging young girl was being released from a state facility and I was sent to to the facility for two days of behavior training. "Carla" was given the label of severe autism, was minimally verbal, and had a variety of challenging behaviors (screaming, pinching/scratching, non-compliance, etc). Again, I was trained to use a combination of rewards (praise or treats) and punishments (time-outs primarily) to help improve overall behavior.
Major FAIL #2 --- When walking in the hallway with Carla, I regularly praised her for "nice walking" and almost without fail, she followed up by sitting down on the floor. What I was then supposed to say was, "Time-out, Carla, No sitting in the hall," and that was supposed to lead to a time-out. That was a little tricky since a time-out involved 30 seconds or so of just sitting - which she was already doing, of course. But at least I could turn away for those 30 seconds and give her no attention, until I then said, "Time-out is over, Carla. Stand up," and we could walk on - until the whole scene was repeated once again. Again, you win, Carla. This is NOT working!
Eventually I made my way to teaching in a regular school, where my group of about eight elementary-age "special education" students were to be mainstreamed as much as possible. I worked diligently to set up a program of rewards (no punishment involved any more - that was supposed to be a huge improvement) to bring about better behavior as well as more on-task academic performance. The kids could earn points throughout the week and then cash them in for small toys or school supplies or treats on Friday afternoon. I went all out and incorporated the academic component of counting money when I distributed real coins that could be used to make these special purchases.
Major FAIL #3 --- Within just a few weeks, I realized that we had an even split in the group. Every single Friday there were four students with coins to spend, and four who had few or none, and it was always the same four in each group. In this case, we all won in the end because I made a huge leap in my understanding of what many of these kids are dealing with and I discontinued the program.
Especially for those students who are autistic and minimally speaking, what we see as behavior is often the only way they can show us when a situation in their environment is simply more than they can handle, and all too often what we are asking of them is not something they are able to do at that time and in that place. Additionally, their intelligence level is not adequately recognized, and we are speaking to them in a way that is insulting or giving instruction that doesn't match their actual level of understanding. The reality of apraxia - a disconnect between intention and actual motor output - was a brand new concept and I was still in my early stages of learning. Thanks, kids, for being so patient with me.