Friday, 19 October 2012

REBT and Aspergers

The English lingo is replete with idioms that would pose a problem or two to a student with Aspergers Syndrome. Certain turns of phrase would be as clear as muddy water! She would remain none the wiser if you were to ask her to ‘pull your socks up’ or ‘pull your finger out'or 'take a chair!’ Are you with me? She’d be flat out trying to cop on to the message.  How difficult would it be to get a handle on the meaning of a message if it can only be taken literally.

Consider the expressions ‘to get a handle on something’ and ‘turns of phrase’ mentioned above. Somehow we internalise these expressions, which make particular meanings and we draw them out of our linguistic hat and use them in the right place at the right time in the right context (We hope!). But what of the student who has Aspergers Syndrome?  What assumptions can we make about her capacity to understand these culturally specific idioms?

I was once asked to observe a student in the classroom setting as the teacher had some concerns about the child’s behaviour. I asked the student on one occasion ‘is that your paper under the desk there? To which he replied ‘yes it is’ and continued to carry on doing what he was doing. Implied in my words and tone was ‘there’s paper under your desk. I assume it’s yours and will you pick it up?’ I expected that the student would understand this, as most other students would do in my experience. I remember I found this interesting and repeated what I asked before. The result was exactly the same and then it dawned on me (‘to dawn on someone’ – another one!) that this person might be exhibiting characteristics of Aspergers Syndrome.   He understood the literal meaning of what I had said and responded accordingly but had missed the other more subtle meanings conveyed by tone and body language. How much more trouble would this student have dealing with idiomatic terms such as those mentioned above?

As it turned out he was diagnosed eventually as having Aspergers Syndrome.

What can happen if we assume a student ‘should’ know what was being asked of him? He would be reprimanded possibly labeled a naughty so and so who ‘should’ show more respect to his elders! The student would be wondering what’s going on. ‘You asked me if that was my paper under my desk and I answered you. Why am I in trouble?’ And it would escalate from there as mutual misunderstanding prevailed. 

As Karen Horney once said

‘Try to eliminate the word ‘SHOULD’ from your vocabulary … but try doing so though without replacing ‘SHOULD’ with OUGHT or YOU”D better.”

Karen Horney

Rational Emotive Behaviour Education reminds us that when we operate from a ‘shouldist’ perspective we don’t make helpful judgements and we don’t feel our optimum best.  Our ‘behaviour management’ approach to addressing student behaviour is based on such a perspective. All students are the same and they should all know better. Right?

Not true. Someone once said, ‘treating everyone the same is not equality.’
However we continue to persist with this system of warnings, detention, suspension and exclusion. Why is this approach unhelpful to our Aspergers student? What ‘musts’ ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ underpin this one size fits all approach to behaviour (mis)education?

Rational Emotive Behaviour Educators will:

·  Not assume that all students absolutely should behave as the teacher believes they must.

·  Remain calm as they will not demand that they should get something that they know they won’t get (in the short term).

·  Teach students how their thinking feeling and behaviour are linked together.

·  Negotiate learning goals with students to help them develop their competencies.

·  Regard behaviour education as part of the curriculum and not exclusive of it.

Specific to the Asperger child the Rational Emotive Behaviour Educator will:

·  Understand that she will take things literally so teaching about idiom would help or choosing not to use it is an option in some situations.

·  Be explicit, ‘please pick up that paper under your desk?’ rather than ‘is that your paper under the desk?’

·   Help her challenge inflexible ‘must’ expectations e.g. ‘People must always behave as I believe they must’ or ‘things always must be the way I want them to be’ (social stories, change classroom furniture, change the timetable) by exposing the student to subtle and explained changes.

·  Teach her to put the ‘badness’ of situations in perspective, to decatastrophise so she accepts that when she doesn’t get what she believes she must have, she can handle it.

·  Teach her to prefer rather than demand that others/the world should always give her what she wants.

Foreshore, Whyalla, South Australia

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