Don't Bite Autistic Students, and Other Lessons for Undertrained Teachers

First, there was Wendy Portillo, a Port. St. Lucie teacher who was censured for allowing her kindergartners to vote an autistic child out of the classroom -- after each kindergartner was given an opportunity to explain to the 5-year-old why he was disliked. Like Survivor!

Now comes this weird item in which an autistic Palm Beach County child was apparently bitten by a substitute teacher. The sub was fired. Portillo, alas, continues to teach.

In an effort to get to the bottom of whether this anti-autism stuff is a trend, New Times contacted autism rights activist and Nova Southeastern University grad student Alexander Cheezem, who's also a person with autism. Here's an excerpt.


The Juice: What's up with teachers and autistic kids?

Cheezem: Special-ed teachers are not necessarily in a professional environment where there's a lot demanded of them. They're undertrained. The kids are often dehumanized in the school environment, usually in a sort of paternalistic, oh-they're-so-cute kind of way.

Why are special-ed teachers undertrained?

Well, very often, they're given a special-ed diploma and sent into the classroom after [very little] actual training for kids with special needs. Autism specialists, the people who are supposed to be teaching the teachers and be responsible for their training, are often among the most incompetent morons I've ever seen. I'm going to give you one example, just to give you an idea -- do you know what a behavior plan is?

No earthly idea. Do tell.

Well, that's when you have some kind of problem or notable behavior difficulty, and the teachers or whomever will draft a specific, documented plan -- here's how to deal with this behavior when it's being exhibited, here's how to treat the kid afterward. Specific plans for specific behaviors for specific children.

We had a situation where an autistic child was "tantruming" -- having a meltdown, which is pretty normal with an autistic kid. And the behavior specialist wrote down, "If this child has a tantrum, shove cake in his face." The kid gained 25 pounds over the next year, and his tantrums got a lot worse. This specialist wasn't smart enough to realize that kids like cake and that an autistic kid will pretty quickly figure out -- hey! If I hit the teacher, I get cake! Cake is sweet and delicious!

Indeed it is. Speaking of which -- when is it OK for a teacher to bite an autistic child? Is it OK if the child looks sweet and delicious?

No. It's really not.

Well, can you think of any circumstances under which it is appropriate to bite an autistic child? Or any other child, for that matter?

Um, I would have to say no. There's the old superstition about sucking out snake venom, but that doesn't work anyway.

Look, I don't know what the kid was doing. He may have been behaving in some way that annoyed the teacher. But biting him? Come on! An elementary-school kid -- there's just no reason.

But that's when they're most tender.

That may be hilarious. But it's wrong.

I'm just trying to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt -- maybe this is all a misunderstanding. What if, say, the child bites you first?

It's not OK to bite a child -- even if the child bites you! What you should do is pinch the child's nose and push whatever body part he's biting further in, blunting the damage. Because, you see, the way our teeth work, if you pull out, your skin will rip, and you'll receive further trauma.

Well then, why didn't the autistic child just do that?

What?

When his teacher was biting him?

No! No, no. The teacher is supposed to do this to the kid!

Well. Turnabout's fair play, I'd think.

OK. Sure. Turnabout's fair play. But I think, under these circumstances, it's perfectly OK if the child bitch-slapped the teacher.


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