Why We Misunderstand Behaviors in Autistic Children— And How We Can Get It Right

An Indiana school recently made headlines after one of its special education teachers presented an autistic fifth grader with an award for the “most annoying male” at a school ceremony. While the incident was unfortunate in many ways, perhaps most disturbing was how it revealed that even people who work closely with such children can utterly misunderstand the behaviors that are common in people with autism. 

The story serves to accentuate how important it is to educate people about autism in order to spare any other children and their families from the sort of  needless suffering this boy and his family were forced to endure.

How could a teacher get it so wrong? The misunderstanding stems in part in the wide disparities between the definitions of autism.  As described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5), autism is a disorder characterized by deficits in social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and sensory processing differences.  But to others, including many autistic individuals, autism isn’t a disorder, but rather a different way of being in the world—a natural human variation.  Many schools and treatment programs favor the former definition, focusing their intervention efforts on trying to modify behaviors deemed “non-preferred” and replace them with those considered more socially appropriate.

The problem with categorizing behaviors as appropriate or inappropriate is that we miss the bigger picture: behaviors in human beings are adaptations to the body-mind connection.  We need to understand that for autistic people, behaviors are often work-arounds, self-accommodations to one’s brain-body wiring.  Instead of trying to change these behaviors, we should respect them for what they are: the person’s way of communicating or of being in the world. (It’s important to note that when behaviors involve self-harm, we need to direct our attention to the cause of the distress—often physical or emotional pain, underlying medical conditions, etc.)

Too often, professionals view a child’s behavioral differences as items of an autism-diagnosis checklist instead of understanding that they are a child’s way of adapting to how his or her body-brain highway processes information. All behaviors involve movement and sensation, so Anne Donnelan, an autism researcher, uses the term “sensory and movement differences” to describe variations in the behaviors of autistic people.

Many children move their bodies in ways that might seem inappropriate for a given setting, and of course, teachers need to manage behavior in their classrooms. But what is often missing is an appreciation for the “constellation of adjustments and adaptations labeled people make to ease the circumstances of their lives.”

It’s a good idea to pause and rethink our initial reactions to behavioral differences we observe in neurodiverse children. Doing so helps us begin to teach children to respect the signals from their own bodies and to involve the child in devising creative solutions that honor their own individual differences. This approach to autism stands in contrast to approaches that involve cajoling, reinforcing and non-reinforcing behaviors. As more and more educators come to understand and appreciate their autistic students and their behaviors, my hope is that they will come to understand and appreciate the real rewards of teaching these children, and the awards they truly deserve. 

I share more about the paradigm shift in autism treatment in chapter seven of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.PESI Publishing and Media, 2019.

Donnellan, Anne M., David A. Hill, and Martha R. Leary. “Rethinking Autism: Implications of Sensory and Movement Differences for Understanding and Support.” Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, no. 6(2013): 124. doi:10.3389/fnint.2012.00124.

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