Forget exclusion, try understanding

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Use letters of apology to help pupils with Asperger's to modify their behaviour, recommends Cary Canavan

Keeping children in check without dampening their spirits is always a tall order. But disciplining pupils with Asperger's syndrome (AS) can be particularly difficult and contentious.

Autism is a neurobiological condition, classified as a disability and affecting one in 100 pupils. Currently, about 61,750 children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders, including AS, are educated in mainstream schools.

A survey commissioned by the National Autistic Society in 2000, titled Inclusion and Autism: is it working?, found that 20 per cent of pupils with autistic spectrum disorders had been excluded, 67 per cent more than once. Forty per cent of the parents who commented believed that teachers were unable to cope with their child and 37 per cent said there was not enough support for their child in school.

Parents are becoming more aware of their children's rights in mainstream schools, successfully bringing complaints to special educational needs and disability tribunals. Many pupils with AS are not statemented. Yet they all need social skills training and language differentiation, despite their academic ability. Pupils can be labelled lazy or difficult when they fail to complete a task. But this misunderstands them totally.

So how do you discipline such a child when their social blindness, processing difficulties and sensory issues make each day a terrifying ordeal? And when they have wholly different motivations from more typical children, craving routine and predictability? They may even deliberately misbehave to elicit a predictable response.

If they cannot hold it together, they may go into meltdown, which displays like a tantrum. It can be frightening and distressing for everyone to see a child kick a door so hard it breaks, or lash out at another pupil.

First you must establish the cause. If it is a result of sensory overload or perceived bullying, disciplining is inappropriate. But if it comes about through frustration, for example, and the pupil rejects help, there should be consequences. AS explains the behaviour but does not excuse it.

Exclusion is the conventional approach. But is it the most effective one? The behaviour needs to be modified.

In the immediate aftermath, remember that children with AS have a strong sense of justice and no natural respect for authority, nor any desire to please. So avoid getting into a confrontation with them. Education secretary Michael Gove's reforms - increasing teachers' authority, giving search powers, allowing detentions without notice and the use of force where necessary - may be inappropriate for pupils with AS, who may struggle to understand what is happening. Take them to a safe place, sit quietly and wait.

When they have calmed down ask them to write their account to help you understand why the incident happened. They will usually tell the truth even if it shows them to be in the wrong but may be too distressed to do this on the same day.

Instead of exclusion I favour a letter of apology designed to help the pupil recognise their bad behaviour, the effect it has on others and some alternatives. Having AS makes it difficult for someone to imagine these - we need to show them.

The intervention should take place when the pupil is calm, perhaps on another day. It must be with someone they trust and who knows them well, in a quiet room without distractions. You will need a scrupulously accurate witness account of the incident, paper and coloured pens.

Have the pupil read the witness account and highlight in green when someone tried to help. Ask questions like, "Why do you think X did that?"

Next, ask them to highlight in red their bad behaviour. Discuss each instance with the pupil: "Why was that the wrong thing to do?"; "How do you think this made them feel?" Their answers will be atypical owing to a lack of social awareness, but at this crucial stage they usually realise they have behaved badly and apologise.

Go through the account again, indicating in orange where an alternative presents itself. Discuss what the pupil could have done instead, which they then write on the account in blue.

Then get the pupil to write the letter acknowledging everything they did wrong; why it was wrong; how they made the other person feel; and what they could have done instead.

Finally, when the pupil delivers the letter, the recipient should simply thank them without further reprimand or extracting a promise that the pupil may not be able to keep.

Although time-consuming and pedantic, I have found this strategy to be more effective than traditional sanctions in developing social awareness and self-discipline in older pupils with AS.

Cary Canavan has a master's degree in autism and runs LiterAuti, a consultancy for Asperger's syndrome based in Devon. She has worked in education for more than 25 years and has a teenage son with Asperger's.

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