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Pressuring People with Autism Outside Their Comfort Space Can Lead to Issues

By Gbollard @gbollard
A few months ago, my youngest (15) went on a school camp. There was an incident at the camp which occurred because of his differences. It wasn't handled very well and it spiralled out of control. We finally got a resolution this week and I feel that now is the time to look at the bigger picture and talk about how things could have been handled better. 
I would expect this post to be useful for all teachers who have kids on the spectrum in their classes, camp "controllers" and parents in general. 
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues

What Happened

As a boy with autism, my son is always nervous about trying new things. New places and disruptions to his normal routine, such as camps can really mess with his head. He works hard to push himself to try things, even if he's a little afraid of them.
This particular camp had a high ropes experience and he was quite nervous about it but once he saw the ropes he decided that he would be able to do it. He did very well on the course until he reached a part where the course changed from rope walking to a flying fox. At that point, he decided that he couldn't do it and asked to come down.
The camp employee told him that he was not permitted to come down and when this was not accepted he was threatened. The camp employee said "If I have to come up there, I'm going to push you off".  My son began screaming for the teachers who were nearby but they paid him no attention.
The camp employee climbed a nearby ladder to the point where my son was and started trying to drag him off the pole to which he clung. Another boy was instructed to assist by prising his fingers off. Fortunately my son is quite strong and he managed to hang on but he was still reduced to tears in front of his peers.
Eventually the camp instructor gave up and went to get the backpack of tools he needed to get my son off the ropes and all was resolved. Later in the camp, the other boy who was asked to help came up to my son and apologised. 

After the Incident

We knew there had been an issue because my son sent a message to his brother via social media. The camp finished the next morning but we were never informed by the school. My son was quite agitated throughout the weekend after he came home and was reluctant to go back to school on the Monday.
My wife and I went to see the principal on the Monday. We learned that the incident hadn't been reported and the principal promised that there would be an investigation and that the teachers concerned would apologize to my son for having ignored his cries for help.
After almost three months we received a letter that simply told us that, "The investigation has concluded." There was no apology. My wife made a call to the "Manager of Child Protection" but was told that no more information was forthcoming.
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues
We followed this up with a strongly worded letter and finally, our son received an apology. He could at last put it behind him and move on. 

Take Aways

There's a few things I wanted to discuss about this incident;
  • People will change their Minds
  • Duty of Care
  • Reporting is Important
  • Apologies are meaningful

People will change their Minds

Everyone is entitled to change their mind when doing something uncomfortable or unknown. This is especially true for people on the autism spectrum as the unknown can trigger phobias or strong feelings without warning.
In this particular case, the issue was that the agreed upon activity morphed into something less comfortable. It's entirely possible that with careful coaxing and some accommodations, such as a rope to slow the descent of the flying fox, my son may have attempted the final stage of the activity.
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues
If that doesn't work, there needs to be a way out. Trapping a fearful individual in an activity is dangerous for the individual and for people around them. This is the same reason that rides at the funfair stop the minute that someone raises an objection. 

Duty of Care

All individuals who are looking after adults and children accept a "duty of care" for their charges in their areas of expertise. In the case of the camp instructors, that duty of care includes safety on their activities, hence they need to be on hand for things such as harnessing.
In the case of teachers, they have a duty of care to look after the physical and emotional well being of the children on their camp. If a child is showing signs of distress, the signals for which include fear, shouting and screaming, then it is their duty to intervene.
When parents sign forms for camps and excursions, they're signing the "duty of care" over to the "known" individuals on the forms. These could be teachers, scout leaders or friends. You can't expect a camp worker to be skilled in handling a child with "differences" but you can expect teachers to know your child well and to have a least a smattering of special needs care experience.
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues
It's rare that parents engage directly in a care-contract with the camp instructors. It's nearly always with a person who is already well known to your child. 

Reporting is Important

When an incident occurs with a child on the autism spectrum, the repercussions can continue for a long time. Sometimes they develop into full-fledged phobias which result in a child who refuses to attend a camp again, doesn't want to go to school or refuses to participate in any similar activities, for example swimming or activities involving heights. 
It's critical that when an incident occurs, a report is written and parents and school officials are informed immediately. Phobias can become much stronger if they're not addressed early on as children on the spectrum obsess over the problem and replay incidents over and over in their minds. 
In our case, there was a loss of trust in the teachers responsible and there was humiliation because the our son had broken down in front of his peers. 
Sometimes there are no outward signs that these issues exist and the child may simply present as a little more angry, weepy or withdrawn. We were lucky that my other son knew that something had happened and we could dig carefully for the truth of the matter. 

Apologies are Meaningful

Our son attends a Catholic school. There are a few reasons for this but one of them is that we hope that he will learn some of the good "Christian" behaviours.  In particular, I'm talking about the acknowledgement of failures and the seeking of forgiveness.
Unfortunately, too many people and institutions these days are hamstrung by legal red-tape to practice what they preach.  The legal system tells us to "never admit to anything" even if you know that you're in the wrong.
I find this idea very offensive. 
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues
People with Asperger's can most certainly tell lies but they don't generally feel comfortable doing it -- and they usually don't lie very well. Covering up your misdeeds is lying and it's deeply offensive to a person on the spectrum. It can lead to a complete loss of trust.
It's much better to simply acknowledge that you've made a mistake, attempt to correct it as best that you can and promise to try not to repeat the mistake in future.

Acknowledging your own failings doesn't make you a weaker person. It makes you a stronger one.


I think we all feel better now that this particular incident is resolved. My letter asked the school to acknowledge that the inaction of the teachers was wrong and to get them to apologize to my son.
Thanks to my wife's careful forethought, my son had been instructed to accept any apologies with grace and to allow everything to calm down. This meant that when his teachers apologised to him, he didn't respond with some kind of "slap in the face comment" but accepted with grace and humility.
It makes him a better person and it means that the teachers won't feel bad about the whole thing. If anything, it's built a bridge and it means that they'll be there to support him in the future.
Pressuring people with Autism outside their Comfort Space can lead to Issues
He feels satisfied that he has been understood and that the pattern is unlikely to repeat with other students. He is also able to accept that his breakdown in front of his peers was due to pressure that shouldn't have been placed upon his shoulders.
Receiving an apology has enabled him to move on. 

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