The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

—Albert Einstein

I can still feel the “thud” of the marker thrown at my head. I had been working with Andrew, a student with autism, for about a minute, trying to get him to write his name on a piece of paper. He became frustrated, threw the marker, and climbed under his desk. Heeding my mother’s advice to “meet people where they are,” I climbed under the desk too. Shocked that an adult would crawl into his world, he smiled, grabbed my hand, and together we wrote his name on the paper. For me, that moment was the beginning of a new way of teaching—and a new way of relating to the people in my life.

State and national standards in education act as markers, identifying the skills one needs to be a working and productive citizen in our country. The idea is that the general public can treat the standards as a gauge by which to measure how well someone is educated. The standards are geared for “typically developing” children, though the concept of “typical” is as elusive as the meaning of the standards themselves. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are completely outside the markers. Their existence throws a monkey wrench into this tidy, rational way of teaching.

As the Autism Society of America notes, “ASD is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” These difficulties with communication and social skills make a traditional school experience for a child with ASD problematic at best. Large numbers of other students, over-stimulating classrooms, and a high focus on auditory learning make our educational institutions tough environments for such children. As a result, many parents of children with ASDs turn to private schools. Still, many public schools around the country are attempting to make the necessary accommodations to meet the specific needs of learners with autism, and some are making great strides.

Of all the approaches being used in schools today, none is more misunderstood and contentious than Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA involves breaking down human behavior into its smallest parts, with the aim of understanding why and how a particular behavior is occurring. Its goal is to help children with ASDs learn “socially important behaviors.” I have seen ABA strategies and tools work wonders in the hands of qualified teachers, therapists, and parents.

However, in our standards-driven system, outcomes all too often become the goal, instead of individual quality of life. We become infatuated with meeting standards, producing results, and talking about the science behind the standards we’ve developed instead of ensuring that children walk out with tools for creating lives they love, lives they are excited about. Social conformity—and “socially important behaviors”—are mistaken for the prize. They may be benchmarks along the way, but they are not an end in themselves.

What is deemed “socially significant” is sometimes at odds with what is most important, or necessary, for an individual’s happiness. And using “social significance” as our goal prevents us from looking to individuals for their uniqueness, their ability to move us outside of our norms and patterns.

I am a great supporter of public education and of Applied Behavior Analysis, but the fact remains that many of the people working within these fields inadvertently serve the field, but not the individual. For many professionals, public education and ABA begin to seem like life forms, with personalities and needs of their own. But they are not; they are only what we say they are. They are tools for serving humanity, and for unlocking each person’s potential.

We forget the “why” of our work. When teachers, therapists, and other practitioners are committed to personal individuation for each human being with whom they work, the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum become clear. The curriculum is then in service of the context, not taken as the context itself.

Professors Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, and Todd Risley write in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis:

We may have taught many social skills without examining whether they actually furthered the subject’s social life; many courtesy skills without examining whether anyone noticed or cared; many safety skills without examining whether the subject was actually safer thereafter; many language skills without measuring whether the subject actually used them to interact differently than before; many on-task skills without measuring the actual value of those tasks and, in general, many survival skills without examining the subject’s actual subsequent survival.

This is certainly on the right track. However, the authors’ remedy involves looking at how effective an intervention is among its social “consumers” by examining the systems (family, school, etc.) with which the child interacts. This is still talking around the issue by focusing on pre-identified factors instead of quality of life. It’s like asking a fish what he thinks of water. “What water?” says the fish.

The question is: “Is this person being given the skills to become the best version of him- or herself?” Not: “Is this person a good fit for the social model we’ve constructed?” This isn’t to say that having social skills and understanding social mores isn’t important, it’s to say that they are not the treasure we seek.

We are more intuitive creatures than this.

Instead of trying to bring equality to the education of children with autism, we should be trying to transcend the current model for all children. We’ve gotten lost in our disciplines. Everything in human experience, education included, will always lead back to the individual, and how each human being lives his or her unique life. So why don’t we start there? If we care for the individual, we care for the collective. We need to remember who science and education serve and view them through the proper lens—as tools for exploring and for moving us, as a species, forward.

As Otto Scharmer states in his book, Theory U, Leading from the Future as it Emerges, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the inventor… we might say it this way: the success of our actions as change-makers does not depend in what we do or how we do it, but on the inner place from which we operate.”

We are all connected. Personal growth, freedom, and discovery are vital to realizing and understanding one’s role. ABA and public education have the opportunity to help individuals transcend the disconnected, out-of-touch, unquestioning systems that many of us live in today. They have the ability to meet each individual where he or she is. To ask: “Who are you as a unique human being? Who might you become? And how can we empower you to live a life that you love?”


Further Reading:


Image credit:   U.S. Army via flickr

About The Author

Jason Gruhl

Jason Gruhl is an educational and organizational consultant, public speaker, and writer based in Denver, Colorado. He received his Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Regis University, and a Special Education teaching degree from the University of Colorado at Denver. Nationally recognized by the Autism Society of America, he co-founded and was the Founding Executive Director of The Joshua School (a private school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities). He has helped shape policy, educational programming, and organizational culture in the state of Colorado for almost twenty years.

  • Jo Ashline

    This was such a powerful piece. As a parent of a son diagnosed with autism and global developmental delays, we’ve had our share of exposure to educators hell bent on turning our son into a compliant robot. We even bought into that mindset ourselves in the beginning, when he was diagnosed at the age of 2. I remember we were so driven to stop our son from flapping. “Quite hands,” we’d chant all day, not really understanding why we needed to eliminate this behavior, but determined to do so anyway. One day I took the time to really watch my son as he flapped. The serenity on his face, the blissful smile upon his lips. He looked as if he might take flight any second and I vowed, along with my husband, to never utter “quiet hands,” again.
    It is imperative that while we strive to provide our loved ones diagnosed with an ASD with the tools and skills they need to live a happy and productive life, we are careful not to crush their spirit along the way. Who will my son become? The truth is, he is everything he needs to be already; my job is to make sure he continues to s