Are We Giving Autistic Children PTSD From School?

Published by: Psychology Today
Written by: Marcia Eckerd

For most autistic children, school can be a toxic environment. Working on the advice of experts, school staff aim to have autistic children’s behavior conform to neurotypical expectations. The more a child is indistinguishable from mainstream peers, the more successful the is believed to be.

Disruptive or atypical behavior is labeled oppositional, avoidant, attention-seeking, rude, or simply inappropriate. Children who don’t “cooperate” (meaning engage in and respond to school-led, behavioral interventions) are often called non-compliant. The issue is seen to be the child, not the intervention itself. Autistic children are often taught that what they feel, think, or do is wrong and they should do what they are told instead. This can have a life-long impact on self-esteemself-confidence, and self-advocacy. Quoting a student on a Stanford University panel, “It kills my soul.”

The issue of quashing self-confidence and self-advocacy is worth considering since schools expect students to “participate in post-secondary planning.” According to a 2017 study, “77 percent of autistic high school students play a very limited role or no role at all in post-secondary planning compared to 47 percent of students with intellectual disabilities and 27 percent of students with all other disabilities.” (Gillespie-Lynch, K. et al 2017)

Many interventions treat behavior perceived from the outside, without understanding the meaning or necessity for the child. The behavior is the tip of an iceberg that goes down to sensory, social, emotional, motoric, and cognitive issues the child experiences. A child who is “acting out” may be responding to internal frustration, overstimulation, anxiety, or some other distress. Plans often focus on eliminating the “acting out” behavior instead of recognizing distress. We need to support children, not single-mindedly focus on correcting behavior. Click here to read the rest of the story.