I wish I had known then what I know now

Today’s guest author is K.H.

K.H. is a former paraprofessional and a mother of an autistic child.

Around 2011, I was hired to be a para at a school in Utah for disabled children with what the district termed “severe behaviors.” These were the kids, teens, and adults that special education teachers in typical schools refused to work with; many of the students were dumped at this school and effectively abandoned by the district.

When I was hired, I was shown around the school and then brought to the classroom I would be working in. Each classroom in the school had a small seclusion closet with padded walls and a linoleum floor, barely big enough for a student to sit in. In the hallways throughout the school, additional larger seclusion rooms were waiting in case of “difficult behaviors” outside the classroom. Additionally, as part of my employment, I was trained in ABA behavioral techniques, seclusion, and restraint (there is no such thing as safe restraint, but at least we were not allowed to use prone restraint, restraint against walls or floors, or to restrict movement of arms or legs fully).

My teacher was fresh out of college and was considered an ABA behavioral specialist (this was the only teaching training he had been offered). As my other para coworkers and I had no direct connections to the disability community and no prior experience with special education, we were all very inexperienced and misguided.

The harm we caused our students with our limited knowledge was incalculable and inexcusable. 

Several of the students I worked with had seclusion written into their IEPs. These were the only kids we were allowed to place in the seclusion closets if we felt their safety (or the safety of their peers) was compromised due to their dysregulation. Once a student who did not have seclusion written into his IEP was placed by my coworker in a seclusion closet, and she was fired for doing so (my other coworker and I reported her together). That was the only time I saw anyone receiving repercussions for the seclusion of a student.

A little about circumstances surrounding seclusion: my students mostly came from care centers every day. We witnessed clear signs of neglect on a regular basis, which I’m sure contributed to the dysregulation of these teens. School was a mixture of overstimulation, boredom, lack of assuming competence, and trauma that only added fuel to the fire. It’s no surprise, then, that meltdowns happened regularly. Those meltdowns were seen through the lens of ABA and were thus regarded as intentional bad behavior. When a student was placed in seclusion, we were often pretty dysregulated, so the situation was incredibly distressing for the teen. We used a chart to record the teen’s actions while in the closet, including crying, screaming, hitting the walls, etc. They were never left alone and knew we were there, but we were also not allowed to engage with them as ABA teaches that you must ignore behaviors to extinguish them. I was taught that the teens were required to be calm and quiet for about two minutes before we could let them out. Sometimes this took 30+ minutes to achieve. We rarely ever restrained, and those circumstances were usually to prevent further physical violence.

Still, I wish we’d had better methods for students to protect them and ensure they could move freely and safely. I also deeply regret ever using a seclusion closet. 

As you can imagine, it was highly distressing for both the student and the para. I developed permanent panic issues like uncontrollable shaking that last for ages until my body can reregulate. I now recognize this as my nervous system responding to exposure to repeated trauma; it is impossible, in my opinion, to be around seclusion and restraint in any way without it affecting you psychologically. I’m sure my former students have suffered infinitely worse due to their experiences.

Eighteen months after I began working at that school, I quit. My excuse was that we were moving (which was true), but in reality, I couldn’t take the environment anymore. Several years later, I had an Autistic child myself, and in an effort to learn from the Autistic community, I learned how awful my students’ treatment had been. I was especially disturbed to realize the fact that I am likely Autistic and that I had harmed my community severely. 

I wanted to share my story to help people see how pervasive this issue really is and to help folks know two things: first, we need to find ways to reach people before they ever enter special education so that they know these practices are harmful. Had I been connected to the disability community before I was hired, I would have known what I was being taught to believe was “the only and best way to help these kids” was wrong. Second, we need to believe that people want to do what’s right and often can and will change when they know better. Now that I better understand Autism, basic psychology, and my dysregulation, I see where I could have used so many effective techniques first to assess my own needs and then ensured that my students were treated with the love, compassion, and respect they deserved. Now that I have learned from the Autistic community, I am able to give my child the kindness that I wish I could have offered my students. My biggest regret is that I cannot contact my former students in the care centers to apologize. I will do what I can in their honor to try to ensure no other children experience what they did.

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