Susan's Blog

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why Not Have a Cow?

The arrest of an 8-year-old Asperger’s girl in Idaho has brought back raw memories of what happened to Nat when he was 8. He was not arrested for his outbursts, thank God, but he was expelled. That school refused to put in any of the supports that our behaviorist recommended, even when our town was willing to pay for the additional staff (this was an out-of-district placement). The dialog around what was happening with Nat in that school program over the course of that year was similar to what I read in the story about Evelyn. In the ABCNews report, the school officials talk about Evelyn — who had an aggressive outburst as a result of being kept from a class party — as if she were an inexplicable creature, an oddity; someone to be tolerated at best, and ostracized (and arrested) at worst. Apparently she did not get to go to the party because she refused to take off her beloved cow costume.

Yes, yes, of course I don’t know all of the facts, but I’m going to jump right in anyway. I read the news story twice to try and piece together the scenario. In trying to be fair, I wondered about the insistence to remove the costume. The teachers were probably always trying to get her to act more “age-appropriate,” (note the use of quotes; I don’t really go in for age-appropriate so much myself or believe it should be insisted upon for any kids) and most likely they focused on motivating her to wear other things and fit in. Perhaps they used the party as a motivator, but phrased it all in such a way that they shot themselves in the foot, e.g., “You can’t go to the party unless you are dressed appropriately (no cow costume).”

Fitting in is overrated. Being indistinguishable from the “typical” kids — what a lousy aspiration, yet that is so often the goal. I suppose, to some degree, we all have to learn this, but perhaps a child with difficulty understanding social mores can be given some kind of break, especially at age 8? I’d even like such dispensation for the 19-year-olds, but…

But there were also references to “escalation.” I have learned to beware of the Autism Escalator. As soon as a school system starts seeing Nat in terms of behaviors “escalating over time,” there is possibly trouble brewing. What I learned at that particular “special needs” program is that they probably had marked Nat as trouble even before the first day. It was, therefore, a self-fulfilling prophecy. You expect the worst, you get the worst. And once trouble did indeed start, the teachers were mostly reactive and afraid — and angry. I tried to point this out, by asking how the different staff treated Nat, felt about Nat, but of course I learned nothing. Anyway, “someone like Nat” could never be expected to pick up on all that, right?

Right? Of course wrong. Nat knows how people feel about him, he just doesn’t know how to show what he knows. He appears stoic, but I don’t know if that appearance matches what he feels inside.

Like a child about to get on an escalator for the first time, I started to panic when I got word from Nat’s school, eleven years ago, that his “inexplicable” aggressive behavior was escalating. The staff also referred to the many things Nat did to them, (like Evelyn’s teachers) in ways that you could just smell how personally they were taking it. How Nat had “lunged” at the teacher who was pregnant, for example. I’ll never forget that one. Did they really think that an 8-year-old kid would realize that she was carrying a delicate fetus in there, or what hitting her belly meant? He probably sensed her own sense of fragility, her skittishness. And, there was no thought about what that teacher was like to Nat, what vibe she might have been giving off. He used to laugh whenever Max cried. Was he a sadist? No, he was probably stimulated by the strong emotion he was witnessing. He was probably confused. He might also have been psyched, being a sibling. I don’t know.

No attention paid to the relationships Nat had with those teachers, how one or the other may have treated him with fear or distance. No, his behavior was always, “out of the blue.”

Relationships are symbiotic. They are two-way, enmeshed, and messily interdependent. If you don’t know that, you will have trouble fully understanding what happens to you (and the other) in a given relationship. You will have difficulty owning what pieces are yours, how your behavior affects the other person. But such understanding is key for the relationship to grow and be healthy. This is true for our relationships with our children, and it is true for the teacher-student relationship.

If the Idaho school teachers merely viewed Evelyn’s behavior at a distance, or worse, at a frightened distance, and never figured out how to connect with her (using her interests and building a bond), then no wonder things escalated over time. Barring her from a party, keeping her in a separate room because of her outfit — or because they were afraid of her/repelled by her on some level — is just a sign that there were deeper problems there. Not enough teacher-training, for one thing.

The staff at that school would do well to take a good hard look at themselves and their behavior (not just around the party, but all year) to really understand what was happening between them and Evelyn. Why was it so important to them for her not to be a cow?


Excellent post, great message. Relationships —all relationships —are two-way and need to be looke at from that perspective. To bad so many educators don’t do that; they don’t stop to examine “What was my role in this communication/relationship.”

— added by Niksmom on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 10:33 am

I don’t think wanting my children to be indistinguishable from children without ASDs is a lousy aspiration. Perhaps my feelings about this will change over time, but I will continue to work toward this goal for now.

— added by Julie on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 10:51 am

Julie, what I should have said is that I don’t agree with that as a goal for children. I believe there are so many other more important things to work on, to learn. Being kind, polite, thoughtful, knowledgeable… those kinds of things. But to be “indistinguishable?” That’s not for me. But I do respect your opinion!

— added by Susan Senator on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:08 am

That story made me SO angry. I’ve worked for many years at a summer camp for kids with autism and I wish every person who ever works with a kid prone to aggression received the training we did. It was all about prevention and recognizing that behaviour is communication and being a detective to figure out what is happening for the person that is causing them to need to use aggression instead of judging someone as “bad”.
I think the question those people need to ask themselves is “what is my part in causing this situation” instead of “why did this child do this to me?”.
If all that makes any sense… my ire makes concise typing difficult.

— added by beauty obscure on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Bravo, honey, BRAVO. You hit the nail on the head with this one and gotten my blood pressure up. Why, oh why do things have to be this way? Where is the intelligence and common sense? What happened to putting the child and their needs first? This is beyond stupid in my opinion. Damn. We might as well still be living in the dark ages. At least it sure feels that way sometimes.

— added by Sharon L. on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 7:31 pm

What is with people these days? Jarrett earlier in the school year was pulled off a swing by a playground aid and yelled at for swinging on his belly. It took the threat of going to the chief of police to discuss matters and look at charging her for assault before we could get any satifactory response from the school. Adults need to be accountable for their behavior regardless of how hard it is to handle the child’ behavior. So what if she wanted to wear her cow costume? Before he even showed signs of autism Jarrett had a halloween bucket that he loved to wear as a hat. I let him wear costumes whenever the mood took him. My cousin thought I was nuts but my feeling was he’s a kid , let him be. As you said in your book, typical kids can have hobbies, however odd ,so why can’t our kids have their quirks? Why squash the personality and uniqueness out of them just to fit with the “normal” kids?

— added by cameramom on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Rock on, Susan. Brilliant, as usual. Those teachers need to get a grip. So the girl wanted to wear a cow costume. And? Who was it hurting??? Geez. Those teachers need to read this book:;=books&qid;=1232330209&sr;=8-1

This is why I have an autism mothers' group and an autism play group. We don't care if our kids flap and stim or carry around pinecones or bananas or balls of string or wear funny clothes. They're our kids, we let them be themselves, autism and all. As it should be.

— added by ASDmomNC on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 8:59 pm

@Julie: to what end? When does “indistinguishability” as a goal begin to snuff out individuality? And what *right* do others have to refuse to accept harmless difference?
If there’s a “right” not to have to look at a kid flapping his hands, how is that any different from a “right” not to have to look at a kid whose skin is a different color, or a kid who doesn’t say the same prayers you do?
It seems to me that making “indistinguishability” a top priority gives tacit acquiescence to societal intolerance of difference. And that is a bad thing. Intolerance is inappropriate behavior that needs to be extinguished.

— added by Phil Schwarz on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:05 pm

@ASDMomNC: _Just Give Him The Whale_ is a wonderful book, both in theory and in practicality. (Full disclosure: I am no relation whatsoever to author Patrick Schwarz, but I serve alongside author Paula Kluth on the board of the Autism National Committee.)

— added by Phil Schwarz on Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 11:07 pm

I find aggressive behaviour to be “wrong”… and I’ve spent years dealing with it and refusing to accept it as “normal” for children with ASD. If you can teach a 2 to 4 year old… you can teach a child with developmental delays correct behaviour. I will NOT be abused by my children – EVER. If you wouldn’t allow a NT child to do something, why is it all of a sudden OK for a child with ASD to do it??

Flapping, hurts nobody…. but teachers should be able to go to work and not be assaulted by someone elses kid.


— added by farmwifetwo on Monday, January 19, 2009 at 9:10 am

Farmwife, nobody said it’s “normal,” but it does happen. “If you can teach a 2-4 year old then you can teach a kid with dd…” Yes; except if you can’t. Do you work with dd kids? I am very leery of people who deal in such absolutes. If this has been your experience so far, you have been lucky. It’s not always that easy, which is the reason so many of us parents angst about it. I’ve had fellow parents of ASD kids tell me they would “NEVER” let their kids hit them. Yeah, I wouldn’t either. Except until my kid hit me. Then it had NOTHING to do with me “letting” her. If you can’t deal with the fact that this is, UNFORTUNATELY, a response a particular kid might have, you shouldn’t be working with these kids. I agree with Susan totally: the idea that this poor, cornered child’s lashing-out was personal is preposterous.

— added by Anonymous on Monday, January 19, 2009 at 10:38 am

This is a topic that really pushes my buttons, so here I am again. I don’t deal in absolutes. Not everything works the same way for every child. Jarrett had a teacher in second grade that was a stern older woman and basically at our first meeting she wanted us to give her a foolproof way to deal with whatever Jarrett dealt out. She was quite miffed when I pointed out that we try different things until something works. She also wanted us to try medicating him which I refused as we tried medication as an experiment before and it only made things worse. With this teacher, I got the feeling that she wanted himd rugged and quiet so as not to bug the other kids. This was also the year we had alot of tantrums and screaming outbursts and even some acting out and I still feel it was all a reaction to this teacher and her attitude toward Jarrett and the way she treated him. We had a behavior notebook that went back and forth and when we got a permission form that they wanted us to sign for him to join an anger management group, I flipped. Most of what was written in the book was he had a great day today. If it wasn’t a good day, let us know so we can help. We butted heads with her all year long, it felt like second grade would never end. I would also like to point out that we didn’t have this problem before he had this teacher and we have not had it since. A child may be disabled but they are not stupid, most can tell when you don’t like them and the attitude you project toward them speaks volumes. If you act like you’d rather not deal with them, they know it. How much of Evelyn’s behavior was a reaction to how she was treated on a daily basis? What if everyone else’s attitude toward her sparked these outbursts? No she probably didn’t mean it personally but maybe she took some of the so-called discipline personally and this was how she dealt with it. What if not wearing the cow costume was a punishment derived just to get back at her for her reaction to the environment around her? You know, she had an outburst/tantrum and maybe someone said this will really show her and (maybe that’s was actually happened) events unfolded from there. I hope there is a lawsuit and I hope they win, I think it would be a victory for everyone of us that has had something similar happen to their child.

— added by cameramom on Monday, January 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Susan- great post. I sometimes think our autistic kids are even MORE attuned to emotion. When things are calm in my house, all is well. When there is any kind of extreme of emotion (happy, sad, crying, yelling) in the house, my ASD kid “escalates” pretty quickly. Anecdotal I suppose but still my thoughts.

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 12:32 am