“Teaching her is bound to be painful”….”but she’ll live up to just what you demand of her, and no more.”
—Annie, Helen’s teacher (The Miracle Worker, 2)
We had ended formal therapy and preschool and I took over the role of primary therapist and preschool teacher in addition to my current role of mom (for background see Going it Alone, http://wp.me/p2OomI-6z). I had hoped that my daughter Beth’s negative behaviors would decrease when the stress of therapy and school ended, and in large part things were better. But for months, whenever I tried to teach Beth something, she immediately lashed out.
Unlike in the picture above, I never poured water on Beth as Annie did to Helen. But there have been times when I have wanted to.
What tried my patience the most? What made me so angry that I gave myself a time out so I could calm down? Hands down, the most frustrating experience with my daughter and her autism has been her aggression. Cue the aggression scene from our drama…
I guide Beth to her writing table, tell her to sit, then I kneel beside her and try desperately to get her attention as I demonstrate with a small wet sponge how to write the letter L on a chalkboard, as instructed in the “Handwriting Without Tears” Pre-Kindergarten writing manual (3). The task is well within her abilities, but she is resisting. She keeps looking to the side and out the window, pushing the chair back, sliding down in the chair, and rubbing her back against the chair. I tap on the chalkboard, say “look at chalkboard”, block her view of the window with my body, offer her any treat or video she wants to make her do the task. I ask her to pick up the chalk and she starts hitting me in the face and lunging at my hand to bite it. I move out of the line of fire, ask her again to pick up the chalk, and because she can’t get at me she starts biting her own hand. I block her and tell her she needs to be nice to her hand. I help her finish the quick task (by guiding her hand with my own), and then I sit down and cry while she runs into the other room.
I couldn’t control her aggressive behavior, which meant I couldn’t teach her. What was I doing wrong? I went through the expert advice and analyzed the situation.
Catching Flies with Honey
“We catch our flies with honey, I’m afraid. We haven’t the heart for much else, and so many times she simply cannot be compelled.”
-Kate, Helen’s Mother (The Miracle Worker, 4)
Past therapists had the recommended the following list of tips to me, which is a standard “gentle approach” when dealing with aggression in children with autism (5, 6, 7).
- Check for underlying health issues that may cause the behavior
- Provide appropriate level and frequency of reward for the work
- Keep work sessions short at first
- Provide substitutes before or during session to fulfill oral or hitting need (like chew items, physical activities)
- Address language issues -Try visual schedules, visual timers, and/or use first/then (say or use a visual to explain first task, then reward)
- Reward good behavior
- Ignore the bad behavior – move out of range of or block the aggression, but keep facial expression neutral, don’t call attention to the bad behavior, use a calm voice, and don’t yell
- Direct the child to finish as much of the task as possible (so that he/she is not allowed to escape the work)
- Don’t reward bad behavior
Well, I had done everything as suggested above. She was in great health, sleeping better than ever, the tasks were BELOW her level, rewards were high and frequent, I gave her plenty of sensory items and activities, I tried a visual timer, I tried schedules, and I tried first/then. I rewarded only good behavior, I ignored the aggression, stayed calm, I didn’t yell, I didn’t say no, and I made her finish the task before she left the work area. And still, she continued to be aggressive when I started to teach her.
After a particularly challenging day dealing with Beth’s aggression, I announced to my husband, “I have had it. I am putting this kid in boot camp.”
“Mrs. Keller, I don’t think Helen’s worst handicap is [her disability]. I think it’s your love. And pity.”
—Annie, Helen’s teacher (The Miracle Worker, 8)
Why didn’t I try boot camp sooner? The quotation above sums it up. I just couldn’t see the solution to the problem because of my own grief over my daughter’s disability. I was afraid to try sterner methods because I was so full of love and pity for Beth.
So, finally I could follow my own parental instincts again. I did everything that I wasn’t supposed to do per the experts. When she was aggressive during teaching, I made her keep working until she stopped being aggressive. If she bit my hand, I pushed my hand back into her own mouth until she let go. If she hit or kicked, I pushed her arms and legs away until she stopped. Raising my voice, I sternly told Beth no biting, no kicking, and no hitting. I put her in time out after each aggressive episode. I treated her exactly as I would any other kid who was acting up and…it worked. A little over 1 week later, and the aggression was gone, and it has been gone for months.
Mixing Honey and Tough Love
Was it a miracle solution? No, I just got lucky that Beth connected the aggression act with the consequences. I tried being very stern and giving time outs for other problem behaviors and it failed miserably. So the formula I have settled on now is a gentle approach to discipline, with a touch of tough love when needed. I expect more of my child, so I am willing to push her a bit, to use a stern voice, or to tell her no.
Overall, Beth’s behavior problems are milder than ever. But I am aware that kids change all the time, so I might have to change my approach in the future. I am also aware that this is only the first step in a very long and uncertain path. For now though, I’m just grateful that my child finally let me in so that we can start our journey of teaching and learning together.
1. Photo credit (Len Radin):
2. Gibson, William (2008-06-17). The Miracle Worker (Kindle Locations 2735-2736). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
4. Gibson, William (2008-06-17). The Miracle Worker (Kindle Locations 1238-1241). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
8. Gibson, William (2008-06-17). The Miracle Worker (Kindle Location 1806). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.