The rules that make up our social structure can seem arbitrary when participation is not intuitive: Go here now but not later. Touch this but not that. Put this here but not there. When you look for an underlying logic in order to understand them, as many autistic children and adults do, it appears they change on a whim. “Go with the flow” requires recognizing and understanding, or at least being able to follow, the “flow” of society, which is based on social norms - the very skill that eludes so many people on the spectrum. It’s really no wonder so many cling to routine, structure, and sameness and get upset when it is violated. From that perspective, it’s actually surprising more folks on the spectrum don’t spend more time in “fight or flight” mode. It is a constant battle to figure out how to live in a world that often doesn't make very much sense.
Engaging with the norms and expectations of the school and classroom environment is particularly challenging for several of my students. In particular, they do not recognize the logic behind sitting and completing an academic task, moving to another area, and repeating the demand. Both sitting and moving are non-intuitive demands. Both have, historically, had intensive intervention aimed at compliance with these demands.
They often demonstrate their lack of understanding by removing themselves from the demand to engage in preferred activities which are both highly interesting to the student and engage the teacher in an interaction, thereby drawing both of them away from the interaction they do not understand the logic behind. What concerned me was students who were getting bigger and older (I teach middle school) and more aggressive. And we were the cause. (Of the aggression, teenage boys are going to grow like weeds whether we want them to or not.)
I met with the team and we got programs put in place to get everyone’s hands off the students unless there was a real immediate safety risk (e.g. about to be hit by a car!)
We got lots of alternative seating in place. More than enough for every student in the room. Ball chairs. Bouncy chairs. Rocking chairs. We stopped telling students to sit and started asking them where they wanted to sit.
We got some pretty ridiculous answers at first. On the table? On the heater? On the floor?
We said okay. We did our academic work there.
Sometimes students didn’t want to sit. They stood or leaned.
We said okay. We did our academic work there too.
It wasn’t perfect. Kids were still on the move a lot. Transitions were not flawless. But what changed almost immediately? The day we made this change, the aggression that was starting to become a problem disappeared overnight. We’re getting just as much work done as we did when we were following the compliance-based program with one difference: everyone, kids and staff, are happier. We’ve been at this for a couple of weeks now and an unexpected thing has happened: the kids are starting to sit. They are sitting in chairs and without being asked. The logic is simple really:
Stop fighting the kids and they’ll stop fighting you. It’s the gift of flexibility.