To be a certified instructor in “Therapeutic Options,” one needs four days of training. That’s it. Four days to learn how to teach people maneuvers that kill and traumatize autistic kids.
Not once did anyone mention that maybe children shouldn’t be subjected to compliance training. It was a joke, and people like me were the punchline.
Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.
These children are the population that was chosen to be the subjects of an experimentally intense, lifelong treatment within a therapy where most practitioners are ignorant regarding the Autistic brain—categorically, this cannot be called anything except abuse.
When I finally turned to social media, I found that the recommendations I’d been given for how to care for Edmund were incomplete and ignored the crucial perspective of disabled adults. On Twitter, I connected with disabled people for the first time. I devoured their tweetstorms, blog posts, and articles. I started to learn about the experience of disability. Stella Young’s TED Talk on disability, with all her wry humor, made me rethink how disabled people are both sentimentalized and denied basic accommodations. By reading their perspectives, I saw Edmund in a whole new light.
I heard disabled adults argue that disabled kids need to learn agency and independence rather than compliance. They want to ensure that disabled people are accommodated and receive what they need to live their lives. Many disabled people don’t want to be cured; disability is frequently essential to their identities. This is even reflected in how most disabled people define themselves: They often prefer to be called “disabled people” because their disability is vital to their sense of self, whereas parents often say “people with disabilities” because they want to stress that their child’s disability doesn’t define them.
This may seem like semantics, but it reflects the tension between these two groups. Some disabled people resent that parents, not disabled people, are often the spokespeople for disability issues, because their priorities can be so different. Upon facing a diagnosis for a child that entails disability, parents often want a cure. Failing that, they frequently want their child’s disability to at least be less apparent to the outside world. I certainly empathized with this impulse. As parents, we want the world to readily accept our kids.
But when I read an autistic person describe firsthand how painful loud noises are, I began to understand how urgent it is that I protect Edmund from similar pain. I shouldn’t try to “manage” this behavior by coaching him to tolerate the pain, as some other parents and health care professionals recommended; I should instead remove him from a place with noises that hurt him. When I read some disabled people say that they did not want to be cured, that their disability was a part of who they were, I thought that perhaps Edmund felt that way too and was unable to communicate it. Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, writes movingly of the fear and pain of being forced as a child to stop flapping her hands: “Not being able to talk is not the same as not having anything to say.”
They raise money to cure us, and train behavioral therapists to fix us, and force compliance upon us.
When autists attempt to blend in it is to avoid suffering the consequences of non-conformance – and not to gain or maintain social status.
Mood: Rubrics, behaviorism, surveillance, compliance, and stress aren’t a learning culture worth showing up for.
When ABA proponents tell parents that only several hours a day of relentless compliance training can “make us fit for society”, they are not seeing a person. They are seeing a problem, a defect. Yet they insist on Person First Language.
In creating such a system, today’s educators go back to the best of our roots in the earliest teachers who understood that learning occurs in many spaces, from caves to campfires to watering holes. The tools we use and the curriculum we learn shift across time.
However, to accomplish learning in today’s world teachers and their learners must use a continuum of old and new technology tools to design, build, create, make, and engineer learning. Neuroscience research is clear that engagement of the mind does not happen when forced to sit in rows, facing a dominant teaching wall, and rooted in space and time by the “cells and bells” model of the twentieth century. Today we know that this compliance‐driven teaching favored some, left some behind, and drove many out of our schools, regardless of compulsory education. The history is clear. Schools of the twentieth century were designed to fail students. The current need is apparent. Schools of the twenty‐first century must be designed so that all succeed.
What education has done literally to almost all kids now, everywhere across the country, is communicate through its structures that if a learner can’t do the work in class, we’ll give that student twice the amount of English and math in a school day, more by far any other content area, which includes science and social studies – and particularly any sort of art or physical education. That’s called double blocking. Kids in remedial classes find themselves doing twice as many worksheets, listening to twice as many lectures, and taking twice as many tests because a single block of math and/or reading didn’t work. So, once again, educators double down on compliance‐driven schooling. That’s the design of the institution – it’s not conspiratorial. This exists publicly as the strategy of choice if a student is struggling in school. Significant literature and historical research document how and why this was set in motion a long time ago. President Woodrow Wilson (Wilson 1909) and then Ellwood Cubberley (Cubberley 1919) from Stanford both basically said in the early twentieth century that we only need a small group of people to get a liberal education, and a much bigger group to forego the privilege of a liberal education. Unfortunately, for many people today that’s still okay. But it’s not okay with us.
The district mission to create an inclusive community of learners and learning is no longer limited to just what we do in our own schools, but rather has expanded to influence equity and access beyond our schools. This has occurred through purposeful connectivity of our educators and learners with others across our district’s 25 schools as well as to other states and even countries. Our efforts are different and unique here because educators are working to convert a public school system that over years and years wasn’t designed for what we are doing now to empower children. We’re working – against rules and excuses – to convert an institution to a progressive model of education grounded in an “all means all” philosophy when it comes to every child participating in rich, experiential learning.