Autistic children endure a lot of ‘behaviour analysis,’ usually done by non-autistic people who are not trained to interpret autistic behaviour and motivation. Often they are taught to assume that the motivation is the same as that of non-autistic children. Thus, if a child gets out of their seat, they are taught that perhaps they are avoiding working and need to be incentivised to sit down and concentrate. Or perhaps that they are attention-seeking and need to be ignored. There’s entire years of courses designed around such theories.

Autistic children aren’t the same as non-autistic children, though. Their reasons for behaving in a particular way are often different, because their brains are designed to work differently. I see too many books and training courses where teachers are told that autistic communication and social skills are faulty, that autistic children are usually to blame and need altering. New research shows clearly that this isn’t so, as I talk about on my blog. Autistic people use a genuinely different way of socialising and collaborating, and can often communicate and collaborate well together. But, the difficulties arise when an autistic and a non-autistic person try to understand one another.

Let’s say we have a five year old autistic girl, Sam. Sam is asked to sit still on the floor at school during “circle time.” Sam does not sit still. Sam gets up and wanders round. What’s potentially happening here?

Firstly, let’s look at how the classroom may appear to Sam. Not all autistic children will see this exact effect, when in noisy, busy, fluorescent-lit spaces. Some do. In this, perhaps the teacher becomes invisible in the sensory chaos.

Secondly, Sam may be able to hear people talking across the entire school. Next door, moving in the hallways, chairs scraping, bells sounding, planes overhead, clocks ticking. It is a deafening, bewildering experience for those whose hearing is designed to detect oncoming danger, and so who listens to everything, everywhere, all the time. Often, the teacher becomes impossible to hear. That’s a reality of autistic hearing, for many.

Thirdly, Sam may find sitting on a hard floor intensely painful, and doing so becomes torture. Autistic sensory differences may mean things tolerable for others are beyond our ability to cope.

Fourthly, Sam may have Restless Leg Syndrome (“RLS”). Some autistic people do. Researchers suspect it is due to a chemical imbalance that causes intense feelings of rising uncomfortableness, often in the legs. Usually the only quick way to stop the torment of it is to move sometimes. Look it up.

Fifthly, Sam may have a form of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Some autistic people do. It can lead to joint problems, pain, exhaustion, and extreme difficulty sitting unsupported. None of that is deliberate avoidance or attention seeking. Nor is it slumping in a chair because of a poor attitude.

Sixthly, does Sam also have ADHD? There’s a big overlap between autism and ADHD, and sometimes the ADHD is missed. Sitting and concentrating for a long time can be almost impossible for some, therefore, and breaks desperately need to be taken.

Seventhly, Sam may encounter what some autistic people may experience when in sensory hellish places or during too much social interaction—unusual brain activity. Not a full epileptic seizure, but ‘spikes’ in electricity in the brain, which can lead to unusual responses for a while. Those are entirely out of the individual’s control. It may lead to them ‘shutting down’ or ‘melting down,’ the former being a switch-off response where they cannot communicate. The latter resembling a temper tantrum, but it is not. Neither response can be ‘behaviour-trained’ out of them, as it is not a chosen behaviour.

Possible Reason eight, Sam may find that being jostled leads to intense pain, for example in circle time if the children are very close. An unexpected jostling can feel like being electrocuted. Sam may wish desperately to put space between themselves and potential pain etc, and may need a much bigger personal space zone.

Some autistic children flap their arms or shake their fingers in front of their eyes, for example. Finding our bodies is really hard, because we don’t have a good bodymap in our brains, so this helps locate which bit of us is where. Or it may be a way to regulate what we’re doing and feeling. Or it may be a way to understand how far away we are from other things. Making it stop is somewhat like stopping a Deaf child using sign language, but worse. Yet, I see ‘extinguishing repetitive behaviour’ on so many behaviour plans for the children. Some repetitive movement may be around RLS and EDS also (see above).

There’s another reason why Sam may be patrolling the outskirts of the group. We’re generally better at detecting oncoming danger. In villages and tribes, autistic people would have the hearing range and eyesight-detail that might enable them to be the very first to hear an oncoming predator. The very first to smell approaching smoke. Being on the outskirts, watching, listening, is potentially how a lot of communities survived. A village would benefit from such a lookout person, not distracted by social chatting and looking at the eyes of other people. That patrolling behaviour could be a perfectly natural autistic instinct, therefore. In class, it’s a behaviour that may need clarification that they can relax, that all is OK, that they can return to their place because there are alarms, sensors, and staff already taking care of that detecting. Number of behaviour manuals I’ve ever read this in? None at all.

A further possible reason for behaviour is around trauma. Too many autistic children are victims of traumatic experiences at the hands of some others, and go on to show clear symptoms of PTSD. Escape responses or other trauma responses are not then ‘being naughty.’ They are from a place of terror. Behaviour plans take little or no notice of this possibility, in my experience.

All autistic behaviour has always been thought of as faulty, until recent research has helped us understand its wider purpose.

So, what can we do to potentially help Sam to hear, see, relax, and not be in pain? Let’s think.

First, Sam’s medical team may wish to do some autism-friendlier testing for those medical possibilities of RLS, EDS or epileptiform ‘brain spiking.’ It may be worth someone doing an investigation for ADHD, too, and a general medical checkup for any other pain condition or illness. Many autistic children do not register pain and illness in the usual ways, and so may not be able to explain these. Mindful of our
own son, who played sport with a broken foot for some weeks, not registering the pain he was in. Thus, medical teams thought it was just bruised.

Can Sam’s class not have fluorescent lights or blinding spotlights? Can they be switched off if it’s bright enough outside? Can Sam have sunglasses perhaps, or a baseball cap to cut out glare? Can Sam trial noise cancelling headphones perhaps? Can Sam be allowed to sit on a comfy chair, to avoid collisions and to enable better support and less sensory pain? Can Sam have regular scheduled short breaks and a signalling system to say they need this? Can electrical equipment in the class (overhead projector, computers) be switched off to minimise noise? Can rooms be carpeted, if budget allows?

Can people please Ask Sam What Would Help. Capitalised, because strangely enough so many never think to do this. Whilst some autistic children do not use spoken language, all can communicate. Sometimes the behaviour is the communication. See below for involving autistic expertise in translating, if needs be.

Personally, I want to congratulate Sam for being in that class at all, and engaging in any way, given the obstacles. I start from thinking, “How fantastic to be in a class with Sam. This is my learning opportunity. What behaviour and attitudes of mine can I change?”

Certainly I’d want to bring in autistic specialists. That’s different from autism specialists. Autistic specialists are professionals who are autistic, and are able to interpret and decode autistic communication and behaviour. They can interpret autistic communication, and note any sensory difficulties that non-autistic brains may miss. Quite easy to find these days.

I’d want to affirm and support Sam, enabling them to be their best autistic selves.

Like any child, Sam may well try to get out of activities just because there’s something more fun or less work. But that’s not my ‘go to’ for autism. Generally autistic children want to learn and want to follow rules. If that has gone wrong, we need to think way beyond the toolkit for decoding non-autistic children, which is the one so often used.

Our autistic children are doing their best to survive in schools. We need to move beyond the old mantras and myths around reasons-for-behaviour, and into a present and future where we understand deeply and work collaboratively. Then, we have better experiences and outcomes for everyone.

Thank you for reading.