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Punishment or Comfort? Teacher Placed on Leave After Putting Autistic Student in Box

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that a Riverside County, CA teacher has been placed on administrative leave after a parent complained about her 10-year-old autistic son being put in a cardboard box as punishment.

The boy’s mother, Kim Rollins, has filed an administrative legal claim (most likely a precursor to a lawsuit) against Ronald Reagan Elementary School, stating that her son Sage’s isolation in the box was involuntary, punitive and caused other fellow students to ridicule her son.”

“I was outraged. I was insulted,” Rollins told the Los Angeles Times. “I cried when I heard.”

The principal of the school, Nori Chandler, told a Riverside County Sheriff’s Department investigator last month that Sage Rollins went into a closet on his own, when he wanted “quiet time,” and was never sent by the teacher. Sage, who has Asperger Syndrome, also told the deputy he went on his own when he needed a quiet place. The teacher who has been placed on administrative leave is a mainstream teacher, also certified in special education.

The box in question is described as decorated, the size of a large television, and placed on its side so that Sage can use the flaps as doors. It was provided by a school counselor for Sage to use as a refuge when overwhelmed by sensory overload. In an interview with the Times, Sage said that he finds the box comforting.

“In the big box, I got to do so much relaxing in there,” he told The Times. “I bring my jacket, a blanket. Some cushy things.”

According to Ms. Rollins, the box was also being used for punishments and time-outs. Using isolation as a punishment for a child with autism-related disorders not only is wrong, it is ineffective, said Ron Leaf of Autism Partnership in Seal Beach, which consults with school districts about teaching children with the disorders.

If the child knows that by acting out, he or she will be given a time out, the child may misbehave intentionally to avoid a stressful situation, such as a challenging lesson or participation in an activity, he said.

A criminal investigation by the local sheriff’s department failed to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and found that there did not appear to be any intent on the part of school staff to mistreat or abuse Sage. That case is now closed, but the school district’s investigation is still underway.

Here’s why this story is so fascinating to me: my 10-year-old daughter, who previously had been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, was finally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome this month. She also has a box to hide away in, although it’s at home, not at school. It’s a huge cardboard box — a garment box from our last move, approximately 2 ft. by 2 ft. by about 3.5 ft. Together, we painted it purple and cut a hole in the side so that she can crawl in. She normally leaves the box upright so that she can sit up in it, but sometimes she’ll lay it flat so that she can take a nap in it.

Once, she asked if she could sleep in it. Originally, I said no, because frankly, sleeping in a box just doesn’t seem all that healthy. She kind of has to be curled up to fit, so she can’t stretch out her legs or anything. However, her stress level at that point was so high, that I relented. Over the last year she has probably slept in the box three times. She sits in the box on average about once a week. It’s actually a pretty good barometer of her stress level. If she’s spending more time in the box than usual, I know that we need to work on more relaxation techniques and talk about what’s causing all that stress.

She does have other places to go, to block out the world when she’s overwhelmed. Her bed is the bottom half of a bunk bed, and I made a curtain that goes all the way around, to make her bed into a cave. She has noise-cancelling headphones. She’s allowed to be in my room with the door closed whenever she just needs a break from her three siblings.

But when she’s really stressed, she always chooses the box. And I’m proud of her for knowing when she needs to take a break and chill out in the box for a while. It’s helped her manage her own meltdowns, and that’s a huge thing.

In a million years, I would never use that box for a time-out or punishment. First of all, as soothing as she finds the box when she’s stressed, putting her in it against her will would be cruel. Second of all, I’m already a little freaked out about the box. It sits there, next to my bed, a rather large and purple reminder that my daughter is not like other girls her age. Beyond that, it saddens me that my daughter feels so stressed by daily life.

Because our daughter’s diagnosis is still fresh, we’re still in the process of developing her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for school. We’ve talked to her school team about managing her sensory needs. We will not be using a box at school, nor any other kind of isolation space. Our daughter may benefit from using ear plugs at school, or being allowed to take more frequent breaks, or the opportunity to visit the school social worker. She’s struggling enough socially without making herself seem even more different from her peers by sitting in a box in the classroom.

To me, this case highlights the need for parents and teachers to be in constant communication about what’s going on both at home and at school. All kids need their parents and teachers to be working as a team, but it’s even more critical when it comes to special needs kids. When we figure out something at home that helps our daughter, we immediately email her teachers. And likewise, when they find a technique that works at school, her teachers let us know so that we can be consistent at home.

As with aversives, parents need to know when isolation (called “seclusion” in education-speak) is being used in their child’s school. Parents of kids whose schools use any kind of isolation, even for comfort, need to know exactly how, when, and why the isolation is used. They need to know what kind of supervision the child has while in “isolation.” Know that schools have different names for these spaces — they are also called “scream rooms” or “seclusion rooms.” For more information about legal protection regarding restraint and seclusion in schools, please see the Wrightslaw website.

If you have a child that sometimes needs to block out the world, what helps your child at home? At school? Please share what works for your family in the comments!

(Photo credit: nuttakit)

You can read more from Joslyn at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.

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