Allyship: Providing a Buffer to the Trauma

I would like to ask for non-autistic people to start actually helping. I know we have allies, but we don’t just need allies. We need outspoken allies. We need a buffer to the trauma. We need a break.

I’m tired. We’re tired. Something has got to give so autistic people can get some rest when fighting for justice.

Consider 30 minutes a week of activism, or speaking up and platforming autistic voices, if your livelihood is benefited by autistic lives.

Because current and future autistic lives are on the line, whether you feel that way or not.

Source: What Autistic Advocacy Really Means – Autistic Science Person

I co-sign that piece in its entirety.

When allies ask me what they can do, I usually say “amplify us, nobody else does” and “pay us”. Stimpunks exists, in part, to amplify and pay the people who educated us.

I’m adding another level to my allyship list: “buffer the trauma”.

  1. Amplify
  2. Pay
  3. Buffer

In my previous gig on a DEI team, I experienced the relief of abled and neurotypical allies buffering the trauma. Respite is a great feeling.

Amplify us, pay us, and buffer our trauma. We’re fighting for justice for all at the edges and intersections. Our designs, our societies, and the boundaries of our compassion are tested at the edges, where the truths told are of bias, inequality, injustice, and thoughtlessness.

We are the canaries. We are “the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream.” Give us a break.

Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom?

TLDR: No.

The paradigm of behaviorism going back to BF Skinner…denies, dismisses, trivializes, or simply writes off the whole idea of inner experience and looks only at behavior, the actions on the surface you can see and measure.

Source: Alfie Kohn | Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom? by The Think Inclusive Podcast • A podcast on Anchor

The behaviorism we experienced at school and in the autism therapies recommended to us by school felt fundamentally misguided. This uneasy feeling led us to the neurodiversity movement, where we found our discomfort with behaviorism almost universally shared.

There are few allies to neurodiversity in education, but in Alfie Kohn’s work on behavior and motivation I sensed a powerful education ally aligned with autistic community advocacy. Kohn gave me vocabulary for the inchoate discomfort I had with the behaviorism used on my kids. His writing nicely complimented and supplemented my neurodiversity advocacy.

I’d been following, amplifying, and applying his work for a number of years, when, in 2018, Kohn published “It’s Not About Behavior”. This article is a neurodiversity advocate’s dream.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

And then, in 2020, Kohn discovered our community and published “Autism and Behaviorism”.

But even more compelling is the testimony of young people who understand the reality of this approach better than anyone because they’ve been on the receiving end of it. It is nothing short of stunning to learn just how widely and intensely ABA is loathed by autistic adults who are able to describe their experience with it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that, until about a year ago, I was completely unaware of all the websites, articles, scholarly essays, blog posts, Facebook pages, and Twitter groups featuring the voices of autistic men and women, all overwhelmingly critical of ABA and eloquent in describing the trauma that is its primary legacy.

Source: Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

The ally I had long sensed came out with a powerful essay demonstrating what an insightful and compassionate ally can do.

And if it turns out that, contrary to widespread assumptions, behavior modification techniques aren’t supported by solid data even when used with autistic kids, why would we persist in manipulating anyone with positive reinforcement? A rigorous new meta-analysis utterly debunks the claim that applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the only intervention for children with autism that’s “evidence-based.” In fact, it raises serious questions about whether ABA merits that description at all.

The late Herb Lovett used to say that there are only two problems with “special education” in America: It’s not special and it sure as hell isn’t education. The field continues to be marinated in behaviorist assumptions and practices despite the fact that numerous resources for teachers, therapists, and parents offer alternatives to behavior control. These alternatives are based on a commitment to care and to understand. By “care,” I mean that our relationship with the child is what matters most. He or she is not a passive object to be manipulated but a subject, a center of experience, a person with agency, with needs and rights. And by “understand,” I mean that we have an obligation to look beneath the behavior, in part by imaginatively trying to adopt that person’s point of view, attempting to understand the whys rather than just tabulating the frequency of the whats. As Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift urged us in their Credo for Support: “Be still and listen. What you define as inappropriate may be my attempt to communicate with you in the only way I can….[or] the only way I can exert some control over my life….Do not work on me. Work with me.”

Source: Autism and Behaviorism – Alfie Kohn

Read “Autism and Behaviorism” and “It’s Not About Behavior”. Listen to “Does Behaviorism Belong in the Classroom?”

Knowing that the neurodiversity and disability rights movements back Kohn’s claims with an outpouring of testimony, do you think behaviorism belongs in the classroom? Or anywhere?

Previously on behaviorism,

Equity Literacy: Learning to Be a Threat to Inequity in Our Spheres of Influence

Mindset marketing is no threat to inequity and injustice. It’s bikeshedding of the same old deficit ideology. It flakes off quickly.

A big influence on me is Paul Gorski of the Equity Literacy Institute. I wish every educator with growth mindset, grit, SEL, and PBIS in their social media bios would take Gorski’s equity courses. Our SpEd family and other marginalized families would appreciate not having to do that reframing work over-and-over again for free.

Originally tweeted by Soni Gill (@Soni_Gill1214) on November 10, 2020.

Image description: Shiny Thing Racial Equity Arithmetic: Racism + diversity programming + an anti-bullying program + Kindness Matters + SEL, PBIS, and restorative practices + grit and growth mindset = Racism

Their tagline at the Equity Literacy Institute is “Learning to be a threat to inequity in our spheres of influence”. That distills what we must do. Mindset marketing ain’t it. Get structural, and get equity literate.

With this in mind, my purpose is to argue that when it comes to issues surrounding poverty and economic justice the preparation of teachers must be first and foremost an ideological endeavour, focused on adjusting fundamental understandings not only about educational outcome disparities but also about poverty itself. I will argue that it is only through the cultivation of what I call a structural ideology of poverty and economic justice that teachers become equity literate (Gorski 2013), capable of imagining the sorts of solutions that pose a genuine threat to the existence of class inequity in their classrooms and schools.

Source: Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology in teacher education

We must avoid being lulled by popular “diversity” approaches and frameworks that pose no threat to inequity—that sometimes are popular because they are no real threat to inequity. The basic principles of equity literacy help us ensure we keep a commitment to equity at the center of our equity work and the broader equity conversation.

The Direct Confrontation Principle: The path to equity requires direct confrontations with inequity—with interpersonal, institutional, cultural and structural racism and other forms of oppression. “Equity” approaches that fail to directly identify and confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.

The Equity Ideology Principle: Equity is more than a list of practical strategies. It is a lens and an ideological commitment. There are no practical strategies that will help us develop equitable institutions if we are unwilling to deepen our understandings of equity and inequity and reject ideologies that are not compatible with equity.

The Prioritization Principle: In order to achieve equity we must prioritize the interests of the students and families whose interests historically have not been prioritized. Every policy, practice, and program decision should be considered through the question, “What impact is this going to have on the most marginalized students and families? How are we prioritizing their interests?”

The Redistribution Principle: Equity requires the redistribution of material, cultural, and social access and opportunity. We do this by changing inequitable policies, eliminating oppressive aspects of institutional culture, and examining how practices and programs might advantage some students over others. If we cannot explain how our equity initiatives redistribute access and opportunity, we should reconsider them.

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle: Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities’ cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities. Equity initiatives focus, not on “fixing” students and families who are marginalized, but on transforming the conditions that marginalize students and families.

The One Size Fits Few Principle: No individual identity group shares a single mindset, value system, learning style, or communication style. Identity-specific equity frameworks (like group- level “learning styles”) almost always are based on simplicity and stereotypes, not equity.

The Evidence-Informed Equity Principle: Equity approaches should be based on evidence for what works rather than trendiness. “Evidence” can mean quantitative research, but it can also mean the stories and experiences of people who are marginalized in your institution.

Source: Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities- standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example-by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

At the core of deficit ideology is the belief that inequalities result, not from unjust social conditions such as systemic racism or economic injustice, but from intellectual, moral, cultural, and behavioral deficiencies assumed to be inherent in disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Gorski, 2008a, 2008b; Valencia, 1997a; Yosso, 2005).

And this is the surest sign of deficit ideology: the suggestion that we fix inequalities by fixing disenfranchised communities rather than that which disenfranchises them. This, then, is the function of deficit ideology: to manipulate popular consciousness in order to deflect attention from the systemic conditions and sociopolitical context that underlie or exacerbate inequities, such as systemic racism or economic injustice, and to focus it, instead, on recycling its own misperceptions, all of which justify inequalities (García & Guerra, 2004; Jennings, 2004). It deflects our scornful gaze from the mechanisms of injustice and the benefactors of these mechanisms, and trains it, instead, on those citizens with the least amount of power to popularize a counter-narrative, just as the dominant “achievement gap” discourse draws attention away from underlying systemic conditions, such as growing corporate control of public schools, and pushes it toward “at-risk” youth from “broken” homes whose “culture of poverty” impedes them from “making it.” Deficit ideology defines every social problem in relation to those toward the bottom of the power hierarchy, trains our gaze in that direction and, as a result, manipulates the popular discourse in ways that protect and reify existing sociopolitical conditions (Brandon, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Source: Unlearning Deficit Ideology and the Scornful Gaze: Thoughts on Authenticating the Class Discourse in Education

  • Attend to the practices, policies, and aspects of institutional culture that traumatize children at school
  • We must infuse trauma-informed education with a robust understanding of, and responsiveness to, the traumas of systemic oppression
  • Dislodge hyper-punitive cultures and ideologies

Being trauma-informed means consciously cultivating space in our mental models so that, even if we know nothing about a particular set of circumstances, we avoid the temptation to mindlessly apply rules.

Source: How Trauma-Informed Are We, Really? – ASCD