Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Square Talk: Inflexible Thinking

This Square Talk is dedicated to Evelyn Towry, an 8 year old Idaho student who was handcuffed and taken to the police station after an altercation over a cow sweatshirt.
Long may you moo.


  1. Hello Bev,

    The school might well have been unfair in not letting Evelyn attend the party in her cow costume. And arguably keeping her in a separate classroom could be considered overreacting.

    I'll be the first to agree that school officials sometimes use the iron fist where a supportive hand would work much better.

    But once Evelyn spat on, hit and kicked teachers - including pinching a teacher's breast - there was a need for forcible intervention. Whether or not it should have involved a formal arrest - and let's note that prosecutors have declined to press charges at this time due to her age and condition - force needs to be met with force.

    Force is not always sufficient, but it is sometimes necessary, however unpleasant it is.

    Jeff Deutsch

  2. My understanding is that the teacher forcibly restrained her, leaving bruises, before the spitting and hitting.

    The entire incident could have been avoided by overlooking the trivial offense of the "inappropriate" attire.

  3. Hello Bev,

    Yes, that is my understanding as well. Evelyn was forcibly restrained, leaving bruises - before her spitting and hitting but after her refusal to stay in the other classroom as she was told.

    Also, given how fiercely Evelyn was resisting, I for one don't know if the teachers could have continued to try to restrain her without leaving bruises, however inadvertently.

    Maybe - and I do mean maybe - the school should have lightened up and let Evelyn into the party, cow costume and all. I myself would likely have done that, but I don't know what the school rules there were or what reasons lay behind them.

    Evelyn's physical resistance, up to and including attacking a teachers in a sensitive area, made what was arguably a bad situation inarguably much worse. Maybe the school started it, but they certainly also had the power - both physical and legal - to finish it too.

    Bottom line: Yes, the incident could have been avoided if the school had allowed Evelyn to wear the cow costume into the party. Let's assume for a moment, for the sake of argument, that the school officials were wrong not to do so. The incident could also have been avoided if, given that for whatever reason the school officials would not do the right thing, she had complied with teachers' directives and stayed in the room. She certainly would not - because she could not - have reduced her probability of being admitted to the party by complying.

    Of course officials are going to, well, enforce their own decisions. There's a word for the kind of place where this doesn't happen: anarchy.

    Evelyn could have complained to her parents after the fact - just as she actually did in this case. "Comply, then complain" should be the watchword in situations like this.

    One of life's unpleasant lessons, for Aspies, autists and NTs alike, is that you can't just obey those rules and those officials you agree with. They may be wrong, but obviously they don't think so. Unless they're specifically going beyond their authority or violating a particular law or regulation, it's their decision to make.

    The appropriate time to resist officials who, in our minds, won't listen to reason - and who aren't breaking the law or regulations - is after we've finished complying with them. The appropriate way to do so does not involve spitting on people, hitting them, kicking them or pinching their breasts.


    Jeff Deutsch

  4. You think the kind of restraint that leaves bruises is ok to apply when someone simply disobeys your rules? Sorry for this but: are you sane?

    If normal kids do that (and they do, at least when iI was in school), no one would DARE lay a hand on them. Parents might be called, the punishment would not be light, they would have been taken out of the party again, but no one would dare restrain them like that!

  5. And about part of Jeff's second comment:

    Talk is easy: you cannot expect everyone, at any age, to know that compliance and compalint after the fact is the best (best? fastest, easiet, but not so sure about best) way to get through something like this. Especially a child. Some people may never get that. They should not have to suffer physical violence in the form of restraint, for not knowing how to accommodate their own bullies. THEY are not the ones responsible. And in a situation like this, with a child this age, she is not the responsible one to begin with.

  6. This is nuts. Are you really saying that an eight year old, autistic child, was told at the last minute that she wasn't allowed into a PARTY for wearing a particular, inoffensive shirt? If the shirt was problematic, why was she allowed to wear it into the school building at all? Why try to stop her going to the party? Why try to force her to change and when she didn't, try to restrain her to stay in another place? Why act surprised when the autistic child acted out her justifiable frustration and pain at the injustice and discomfort of this restraint? And what is wrong with people, that the police are called and this CHILD is HANDCUFFED!!

    This is utterly unforgivable, and trying to put any portion of the blame on the autistic child is pathetic. Jeff said, "force needs to be met with force." The school personnel were 1st to use force.

  7. It's quite true that nobody'd dare lay a hand on a non-autistic kid in this situation. And also quite true that, if they let Evelyn in the door with the sweatshirt in the first place, there's no reason (save their own embarrassment, I guess?) she shouldn't have been allowed to wear it into other parts of the school. Teachers in this situation should keep in mind that the hood, in particular, creates a "comfort zone" for a lot of kids, and if she was wearing the hood in the classroom up to that point, suddenly making her take it off -- especially at the same time the classroom made a big shift into "party-going" mode -- could be immensely stressful for the kid. Certainly it shouldn't have been an issue in the first place.

    But since it was made into an issue, yes, Evelyn should have complied. But the teachers really should have known better than to suddenly change the rules on the kid. In any case, I'm not sure why these cases of verbal refusal turn so quickly into "Oh you won't?" RESTRAIN!!!

    Now, in this case it seems Evelyn was trying to force herself out of the classroom, and admittedly if a kid tried to blatantly strut out of a room after I'd told her she couldn't, I might very well stand in her way myself. I'm not sure what "restraint" means in this case -- if the teachers merely blocked her way by standing in the doorway or something, that's not unreasonable (even though their motives for forbidding her exit in the first place kinda were). But if it's the all-too-common practice of "She won't stop humming? Everybody sit on her!" sort of method, then, yeah, that's crap.

    I find it odd that the kinds of kids who are *least* effectively disciplined/deterred/corrected/whatever by being physically restrained (i.e., autistic kids with sensory issues that are exacerbated by physical intervention) are the only ones teachers are allowed to restrain.

  8. I'm with the 'pre-emptive' myself. So many of these difficulties can be completed avoided by a more flexible approach and or 'using' that difference in a positive manner. It's not always easy to think on the spot and be imaginative, but with practice [adult practice] there's no end of ways that we can come up with to 'exploit' those foibles for the positive.
    Best wishes

  9. Jeff,

    "One of life's unpleasant lessons, for Aspies, autists and NTs alike, is that you can't just obey those rules and those officials you agree with."

    Yes. But we aren't all born knowing this, and I would not expect an 8-year-old to do it perfectly. And if that 8-year-old is being physically harmed (as Evonne said, we don't know what "restraint" the teachers used), "comply, then complain" is not the best course of action *at all.*

    You say that the school started this, and they have every right to finish it. I agree--although our definitions of "finish" are different. As adults, they not only have more "maturity" or "life experience" than the child--they have more power/privilege, and more ability to abuse that power/privilege. (An adult having authority over a child is very different than an adult having authority over another adult, because of the extra layer of "adult privilege" involved).

    So, yes, in conflicts between adults and children, I hold adults to a higher standard. Not just because they should "know better," but because of the imbalance of power. Because too often, when an adult screws up in these situations, it's the child who bears the brunt of the screw-up. It's definitely the responsibility of adults to "finish it," and these adults did a lousy job. According to one article:

    "When Evelyn tried to leave the classroom, instructors told her to stay, and then physically restrained her, causing his daughter to react violently, Towry said.

    " 'She felt that her personal safety was in danger, so she started kicking and flailing,' Towry said. 'She was scared. They were holding her down and she panicked.'"

    For that reason, I am very disturbed by school systems filing criminal charges against young children for hitting, biting, kicking (etc). adults. Yes, in many cases hitting is wrong. Yes, there should be consequences for the child's actions. But setting the legal system on them for this is a *total* abuse of power.

  10. The charges have been dropped, thank goodness.

    Apparently Evelyn had caused trouble before, so the school would be looking for any excuse to get her. That's how they think, good kid and bad kid. A good kid wouldn't have been treated that way.

  11. Hello again,

    I've posted about this controversy here.

    Norah: I understand this is a tough issue. I feel pretty strongly about it myself and I understand how you and others who disagree with me would. I also understand that Aspies gather here so maybe a bit more bluntness is in order. Still, "are you sane?" is over the line. A little mutual respect goes a long way.

    ASpieboy: Very good point. All too many people in authority have prejudices for some people and against others based on previous but unrelated incidents - or even accusations.

    I for one think that "prior bad acts" should be considered irrelevant when deciding whether or not someone did something wrong, or who did whatever-it-was, unless not only were the prior acts proven against the person but also show a specific "modus operandi" that points to that individual. (Not just "he's a thief so of course he'd commit another theft like that".)


    Jeff Deutsch

  12. It has been suggested that "comply, then complain" is the model to be followed when an authority figure uses force. If this is the case for restraint resulting in bruising, where should the line be drawn? Slapping? Punching? Must one comply, then complain, when confronted with clear acts of violence?

    "Comply, then complain" is not a model that has served people with differences well. Our compliance is often not even seen. How many autistics have been tasered by police because they needed extra processing time to show compliance or understand what was being asked?

    It just isn't reasonable to talk about Evelyn's actions as if she was able to stop and come to a logical decision about what to do. Most likely, she reacted out of terror to what she perceived as an assault.

    Yes, she needs to learn better ways to cope. That's not even in question. No one is trying to say her actions should be applauded. Just that she is eight years old, autistic, and was hurt before she hurt someone else. In situations like this, the adult bears the greater responsibility for keeping a problem from escalating.

  13. So nailed the first thing that came to my mind when I read that story. Who says it's not possible to laugh heartily and be deeply struck with sadness in the same moment? ):)

  14. >> Maybe the school started it, but they certainly also had the power - both physical and legal - to finish it too.

    If true that would be the PROBLEM, Jeff.

  15. "But once Evelyn spat on, hit and kicked teachers - including pinching a teacher's breast - there was a need for forcible intervention. Whether or not it should have involved a formal arrest - and let's note that prosecutors have declined to press charges at this time due to her age and condition - force needs to be met with force."

    No, force does not need to be met by force. When you use force on a person in crisis, you make them use even more force because they start to panic. It's often a better idea to just do the bare minimum to avoid too much injury to yourself, meanwhile focusing on calming them down. Whenever you do something that interferes with the goal of calming that person down, de-escalating the situation, you only make things worse. When you meet force with force, you can make them lash out even more and get yourself or a bystander seriously hurt, or you might cause them serious harm. At the very least, you'll cause them emotional harm.
    Besides, so often when people look at situations like this, they talk about what should have been done once things were already out of control. But there was absolutely no need for things to get this out of control in the first place! It sounds like someone just unexpectedly announced a completely arbitrary rule to an autistic kid who was seriously inconvenienced by it. If you know anything about autism, even the amount you'd learn by simply spending time looking after an autistic kid, you can predict that something like that will set them off. Now, if the rule actually had a good reason behind it, it *might* be worth provoking a meltdown. But most high functioning autistics, if you give them a logical reason for a rule, they'll follow it as much as they're able to (in fact many will tell other kids off for not following that rule!). You have to not just look at the spitting, hitting and kicking, but at what situation caused it. And very often you can prevent the entire situation, by just being a little bit flexible.

  16. "Evelyn could have complained to her parents after the fact - just as she actually did in this case. "Comply, then complain" should be the watchword in situations like this."

    Some people simply *can't* follow that. If I comply to an unreasonable rule, it's psychologically painful, to the point where I literally feel suicidal. Besides, do you honestly expect an 8 year with poor social skills to know something like that?

  17. Come on. Handcuffs are unfair, but she assaulted teachers- which is no excuse, regardless of disability, race, or age.

    I am autistic, but never have I been allowed to run rampant and act completely in my own ways because people are afraid of me. I am allowed to run rampant and act in my own ways because a) I'm awesome, but more importantly, b) because I've earned that right and have been trustworthy.

    She pinched a teacher's breast. She was, at that time, a potential danger to the other students. By setting a harsh example, they were also setting the bar for future student disruptions and the consequences of actions. Handcuffs were unnecessary, but she wasn't complying to the rules and sometimes allotments cannot be made.

    Did parents state that she was comforted or relaxed by the cow costume, or did she just want to wear it? It's a silly dispute.

  18. There has also been charges filed against her by her own special education teacher for assault. She has been in trouble for throwing things at other students.

    Look, I have problems like this. I'm a jerk. I have to adjust to things like this in my own home before I'm unleashed into the real world and know that my actions will not be taken with a grain of salt by everyone.

    Presenting her in this victimized light is not only wrong, it's completely biased. Yes, it was inappropriate for the school to forcibly restrain her so hard, but she was physically destructive. It's standard operating procedure. There would have been a bigger lawsuit if someone had stepped on the cow tail and she'd fallen into a desk or chair. I doubt this was done lackadaisically or for a mean-spirited reason. I don't see her in the light of as such an unjust cause as others have faced. Was it okay for Owen Walker to infect millions of computers because he had autism? Was it justified that John Odgren stabbed a classmate because of Asperger's?

    I know John Odgren. I spoke to his father a little while ago to express my sadness and regret that perhaps, in another time or place, that we hadn't met. He seemed like a neat kid. But we have set rules as a society and are doomed to stick by them unless we're striving for anarchy. It's erroneous to try to portray the facts of Evelyn Towry as a martyr.

  19. Hello,

    There's been quite a bit of controversy about this. Interestingly, right now I feel here much like Aspies and autists feel out in the NT world.

    To slightly paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go out in the world with the authority figures we have, not (always) the authority figures we'd like to have.

    Let's put aside for a moment that (1) some decisions which appear unfair may have good reasons behind them, reasons which may not always be apparent, (2) some decisions are choices between the lesser of two evils - not only is someone going to get hurt but also at least arguably unfairly and (3) many decisions aren't entirely or even mostly objective - there is an inherent subjective element.

    Yes, sometimes authority figures are going to behave unreasonably or unfairly. That includes schoolteachers and school officials. That may have happened here, for example.

    (Sharon: maybe Evelyn got into the building before anyone stopped her. Maybe the cow costume was considered appropriate attire for school itself but not for a special party.)

    The next question is how children should learn - as with anything else by exhortation wherever possible, by experience when necessary - how to deal with it when it happens.

    You may well be right in that if the teachers had either allowed Evelyn into the party, or given her some kind of reasonable explanation why she couldn't be admitted, they would have done their duty as teachers and moral educators - and prevented this whole incident. She couldn't have controlled how the teachers behaved. She could have controlled her own behavior.

    Ettina, I am very sorry that you literally feel like taking your own life whenever someone asks you to do something and doesn't give a reason that you find sufficient or logical. I know it must severely restrict, to say the least, your opportunities to work and socialize. I hope you may be able to counteract that with some form of therapy. You deserve to live and to enjoy life.

    Winston Churchill is said to have proclaimed that democracy is the worst system - except for all the others. Likewise, "comply, then complain" is the worst method for dealing with differences in perceptions of reasonableness - except for all the others.

    I do believe that some things are objectively unreasonable and unfair. Other things can reasonably be viewed as either reasonable and fair or unreasonable and unfair, depending on one's perspective.

    What do you do when confronted by a decision you find unreasonable? Just ignore it? Scream and struggle until you get your way?

    The very essence of authority - the backbone of society and thus civilization - is that certain persons in certain situations have specific powers perhaps to start, but definitely to finish, conflicts within prescribed areas, such as school buildings.

    Suppose the Towrys do sue, and the court awards them money damages, and/or orders the school to change the way they handle Aspie and autistic students. Let's assume that the school appeals and the judgment is ultimately upheld.

    Given how the school officials originally behaved, it's quite likely they would find such a judgment to be unreasonable. Would you expect them to comply with the duly constituted authorities - the judge, jury and if applicable the sheriff? Or would you expect them to commit contempt of court, maybe even physically resist enforcement efforts, in defense of their deeply held and maybe even sincere views of what is reasonable?

    It's not as if we don't have examples, including after some of us were born, of such "civil disobedience" on the part of school and higher officials to educational policies and judgments that they felt were illogical and unreasonable. If you like racially integrated schools, thank a National Guard member next time you see one.

    As for bruises: like I said, you try restraining a violently resisting child without causing some bruises. The bruises were, according to Evelyn's own mother, thumb-sized. That means they are consistent with holding and not beating Evelyn.

    Remember, Evelyn initiated force - she didn't touch the teachers first but she physically moved to the door against their express orders. She would have defied them by leaving the classroom if they had not physically forced her to remain.

    Last but not least: you're right, not every schoolchild realizes that one needs to obey legitimate authority. For that matter, not every schoolchild realizes that one should throw garbage out rather than toss it on the floor, say "Please" and "Thank you" and a host of other things. School is one of the most important places children learn these things. And some learning has to take place through painful experience.

    I'll be the first to agree that schools must teach what needs to be taught to each child who needs to learn it - even if they feel the child "should have" already learned it. But that teaching cannot always be pleasant.


    Jeff Deutsch

  20. I realize I am joining in on this coversation a little late but I just wanted to comment about the "comply & then complain" theory.

    Comply & complain as well as an 8 yr old child with Aspergers understanding this concept and following through with it successfully while under stress? hmmmm? In my experience as an Aspie personally, as well as parenting a son (16 yrs. old) who is also on the the Spectrum, well, I just don't see this being a reasonable expectation from an 8 year old.

    The majority of 8 year old NT's have not mastered this concept let alone adding autism to the scenario (ie: sensory challenges, language being viewed as literal, etc.) well, I can't help but feel that to expect this from any 8 yr old would be basically setting the child up for failure.

    However, I do agree with this theory as it relates to older children. Jeff's pont is a valid one if you put it into context for more mature kiddos. I do expect my 16 year old son with Aspergers to follow the rules at school and reap the consequences if he does not. That would include being handcuffed & ticketed if he assaulted someone.

    This is reasonable to expect from my son at this time in his life as he has been through 10 years of social skills intervention, support groups, and countless educational resources which have brought him to his current level of maturity as a young man with Aspergers.

    Again, I would have never had these same expectations from him at the age of 8, but I absolutley expect this from him now.

    What happened to this little 8 year old girl is bottom line: WRONG! The school administration would benefit from providing their educators with ASD education. Their response to this child was not viewed as the meltdown it obviously was - and had the school staff had appropriate training for autism related challenges then this situation would have never escalated to the degree that it did in the first place.

  21. Hello Sharon,

    Having taught elementary school, I can tell you that most 8-year-olds are perfectly capable of obeying rules and people - even the ones they disagree with. They just need training to apply in practice what they know in theory. And an important element of training is punishment.

    It may well be that an 8-year-old Aspie has not yet mastered this concept. And I'll be the first to agree that if the teachers hadn't been trained to deal with children on the spectrum, there's a serious problem at that school.

    That means that it needs to be reinforced more, complete with appropriate explanations at a time when the child is ready to receive them - eg, not during a meltdown.

    It does not mean that the school throws up its hands and says "OK, Evelyn hasn't yet learned the concept of not picking and choosing which rules she'll obey, so we'll let her defy the teachers anytime she's willing to force the issue physically."

    Evelyn presented her teachers with a stark choice: physically restrain her or watch as she made a mockery of their decision - good or bad, fair or unfair - to exclude her from the party.

    The latter would have encouraged Evelyn's peers to try the same in hopes that they, too, could get away with violence.

    Let's also keep in mind that, as Jess pointed out, this was not Evelyn's first act of violence at school.

    So, it would have reinforced - once again - in Evelyn's mind that authority figures do not mean what they say. And that would be setting her up for failure.

    Sharon is right: Aspies need social skills interventions and educational resources. And one of the most important social skills and educational tools is firm enforcement of the rules. Most people - NT and Aspie - need negative sanctions from time to time in order to learn. Trust me on this one - it's a lot less painful to learn this way as a child than an adult.


    Jeff Deutsch

  22. One thing aspies *can* do with aplomb, is see through the crap. If the teachers hadn't been so damn stupid, they wouldn't have had their stupidity exposed by an eight-year-old. Okay, so she doesn't have the maturity to come up with anything other than a hissy fit, but com'on... who's the adult here?

    I hope she has recovered.

  23. Several things come to mind. I don't remember where it is that I read that many aspies despise authority figures and indeed would prefer things to be more peer2peer and decentralized. It would appear here that authorities used escalation, yes, escalation, as a means to enforce their decision. I see an early matter of civil disobedience upon what was perceived to be a social injustice. Yes, aspies, tho many may experience difficulty in communicating these things can perceive such concepts at an early age, concepts that can take much effort for NTs to grasp, even after a considerable amount of unschooling and de-programming.

    Many aspies later go on to disrupt the hierarchical status quo as they stand up for what in their view is right. Some kicking and screaming, while others in pacifist ways.

    Even Jesus left bruises when he had a meltdown and lashed out at the temple, but as he became older, shifted towards turning the other cheek.

    We all mature in different ways. But we defy what we perceive as the tyranny of meaningless orthodoxy of constructs imposed upon us. These are transforming events with monumental and resounding impacts on society.

    Thomas Edison with his insistence on trying different materials until he produced the incandescent bulb.

    Einstein, in his youth, was thrown off a train for being "disruptive".

    Marie Curie was like the honey badger, she didn't care what people thought of her, nor that she was a woman. She did her thing anyway!

    George Fox, was improsobed multiple times and even put into solitary confinement for his views and for standing his ground and refusing to bow down to authority. George Fox did not comply and then complain. He would simply not comply! And without George there would have been no William Penn nor others that followed.

    Evelyn, in my mind, if nurtured properly, and not "ruled" with an "iron fist" has inherent in her, the seeds of greatness!

    I wish I knew what she was up to now.



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