My friend Sam suggested an Atlantic article to me about a teacher who failed her autistic student after following all the recommended guidelines. The author, Laura Rullkoetter, is a high school journalism teacher in Spring, Texas (according to the bio provided on the Atlantic). Ms. Rullkoetter begins the article stating that she develops a curriculum specifically for an autistic student (referred to as H.). She continues through the first two-thirds of the article sharing how her approach just didn’t jive with H. who would continue to struggle for one reason or another.
For example, she expressed how writing out the agenda on the board for the classroom didn’t help H. who seemed to struggle with this approach for some reason (though Ms. Rullkoetter doesn’t go into detail about it). She continues to express her frustration at H.’s continued inappropriate disruptions in class, a rather frustrating habit that autistic people tend to have (including me).
During the first two-thirds of the article, I really felt she was being too hard on herself. She set out a schedule, she provided him plenty of time, she didn’t admonish him on the inappropriate outbursts. At some point, you can only do so much. She seemed to be doing everything fine, and this kid was clearly not doing his part. In my opinion, the way to help autistic people is to provide a means for them to meet you half way. Clearly, as Ms. Rullkoetter was putting it, the cards were stacked against her for some reason with this kid.
It wasn’t until the last third of the article that I understood where she seemed to be having the actual problem. And, like most neurotypical people I come across, I believe she will probably continue to have problems in the future. In a class assignment, students had to interview each other and write about their interviewees based on the notes. While the students had exchanges with each other, H. monopolized the conversation and didn’t take a whole lot of notes.
He had his scant notes, class guidelines on feature story structure, and a few examples of stories. But when it was time to write, he started in on the familiar refrain of “it’s too hard,” rocking back and forth.
I asked what he needed that I hadn’t already given him; he couldn’t answer. He rocked harder and started to flail, signs that his frustration level was rising. In an effort to de-escalate, I sat with him and quietly put my hands on his notes, his guidelines, and his examples, showing him he had everything he needed. A classmate spoke up, trying to help; H. replied with a low growl, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”
He just didn’t understand what I had expected him to write. Because I couldn’t find the words to help him understand an assignment, I put my students and my colleagues in danger.
In situations where a meltdown is inevitable, the course of action is to separate the conflict from the individual immediately. If the conflict cannot be identified, the individual needs to be separated from what is creating a problem. Coming back to that situation later after the person is calmed down is the only way to tackle this problem. The tactic Ms. Rullkoetter chose is an example I’ve witnessed statistically normal people attack a problem. They tend to rush into the cause of conflict and try to meet the obstacles and risks head on. Clearly this assault on the situation isn’t the way H. (or I, actually) are able to handle problems.
It takes a considerable amount of cognitive load on my part to mitigate a problem in my life. If I’m faced with a situation I put myself in, and the cognitive load is too great to figure out how to address the problem; I will run out of energy to finish the project and just give up. However, if I am faced with a situation from someone else, I will inevitably feel trapped and the energy that I’m using to control my frustration will be expended at a greater rate as I try desperately to remove myself from this situation.
For me — and I suspect H. as well — problems are often addressed with a repetitive fight or flight mentality.
But when it was time to write, he started in on the familiar refrain of “it’s too hard,”
To me, this is a huge indicator of a meltdown. Self-doubt is a result of panicking from feeling insecure of having the “right” answer. Regardless of any implied “there are no right or wrong answers”, all answers have a measurable response that come with them, be it positive like approval from peers or mentors to the negative such as insults and jeers.
By the time H. started “rocking back and forth,” he was already in the process of trying to maintain control of his panic on his own. With regards to autistic people, this action is called “stimming,” and it’s a response to having an overwhelming sensory load placed upon them.
“I asked what he needed that I hadn’t already given him; he couldn’t answer.”
There’s good reason why people with cognitive impairments (CI) tend to do better on tests with extended time. Restrictions on time are intended to place a handicap on people without cognitive impairments to measure how well they can apply the information they understand. Those of us with a CI already have a circumstance that makes progress or success difficult because we approach problems differently than our statistically average counterparts.
Ms. Rullkoetter should have changed the subject immediately for him. In her article, she mentioned how she often used breakout sessions where students would be working in pairs. If she were able to, she could have broken them off into pairs so she could work with him to calm down and approach the situation from a different perspective entirely.
Unfortunately, by the time H. began stimming, his brain was so engulfed in frustration and self-deprecation. At that point, he required a drastic distraction to switch it off. “He rocked harder and started to flail, signs that his frustration level was rising,” she continues.
“In an effort to de-escalate, I sat with him and quietly put my hands on his notes, his guidelines, and his examples, showing him he had everything he needed.”
Instead of diverting the problem that was clearly causing his discomfort, she approached it the same way she would. She confronted the problem in front of him, touching his notes and guidelines and pushed him to simply face the problem. She unwittingly became an extension of the problem by doing this. In a sense, she took a side where H. considered there to be an epic problem, and it wasn’t his side. H. was thrown on the defensive because he was backed into a corner by a problem and a supporter of the problem. To make matters worse, H. realizes that in this situation he’s facing the problem alone.
At this point — if it were me — I would be compounding this frustration with a sense of unworth, stupidity and frustration for not knowing how to express how to explain why I’m lost. By engaging H. about the problem at hand while he’s freaking out, she’s essentially trying to put out the fire with gasoline.
Naturally any attempt to intervene by a classmate trying to help is going to be met with the same sense of panic and frustration. The problem is that now there’s more enemies to deal with. When H. replied, “Shut up or I’ll kill you,” I can only wonder what the hell people expected! If you back an animal into a corner, you’re likely to get bit. Instead of identifying the cause of the meltdown immediately and taking the appropriate actions to mitigate it, everything escalated way too quickly sending H. into a frightening situation of what happens when you force a situation beyond their control.
“…Because I couldn’t find the words to help him understand an assignment, I put my students and my colleagues in danger.”
I agree with Ms. Rullkoetter that she put her students and colleagues in danger. However, I do not agree with her that it’s because she couldn’t help him. It’s because she didn’t recognize that her student handles problems very differently than she does. She didn’t have a strategy to identify areas that might have been problematic for her student that could be a risk for possible meltdowns.
For example, she discovered that H. responded to an assignment unsatisfactorily because “H. had never read the school paper, and didn’t grasp that its stories were about his peers.” Other clues included an inability to think abstractly, or understand the social context of current events news photos. While the objectives of the interview assignment were clear and simple enough for Ms. Rullkoetter, it’s apparent that there were a lot of moving parts to it that were taken for granted by the neurotypically minded:
- The interview portion is critical
- The notes derived from the interview are critical
- Critical thinking is critical in order to keep only the important information from the interview
- Notes will need to be taken simultaneously
- You will need to translate the abstract nature that are notes and parse them into an understandable, cohesive deliverable within the same restrictive time frame as everyone else.
I don’t know about H., but it’s impossible for me to talk and take notes at the same time. It’s even more impossible when I have to deal with the distraction of all the other students around me. In college, I learned how to take notes after having recorded lectures with the help of someone else. Then I was instructed how to turn the notes into various other things: flash cards, papers, questions, and other things. But there was no way for me to actually be expected to participate actively while also taking notes about something.
It’s possible that H. didn’t know the importance of the notes. Yet regardless of that, his lack of notes would make the assignment impossible. If H. had an ability to translate the notes from a recorded session under supervision, and learned different uses for the notes, he might have had a better time with it.
I hope that Laura Rullkoetter doesn’t get discouraged by this situation. I imagine it must be extremely frustrating to encounter a problem where every way you know how to address it fails. Believe me, autistic people feel the same way.