How Much Abuse……….The Disciplining of a Special Child



The disciplining of any child whether special or normal is a controversial but highly important issue which every parent has to face at some time or another. As a parent of a special child I feel the issue is even closer to my heart. A few of my earlier experiences  have not been easy to share but I have put it down as a lesson to any desperate parent who submits their child to abuse in the guise of “discipline” or “therapy”

I remember when my son was a little younger than three and a half and I enrolled him with one of the most highly reputed speech therapists in the city. After a few days of therapy she started tying his hands up saying that he needed to learn how to keep his hands still and stop stimming. Then some time after that, when he started protesting her methods she started tying up his mouth, as brazen as could be, stating that he needed feedback to the correct area of his face to learn that screaming was unacceptable. And yet I did nothing, I thought she would make my son speak… my son spent the remainder of his sessions with her with his hands and mouth tied. Finally she told me she could nothing further with him and that was thankfully the end of the abuse she subjected my child to. I however consequently, proceeded to have a nervous breakdown.

Subsequently when we were in Bangalore getting vision therapy done I would find it a little odd that my son would shrink from going into the vision therapy clinic. I then heard from sources that my son was being subjected to aversive treatment. I knew that broaching the issue would mean the end of his therapy and just as I had wanted him to talk , I wanted him to see. Nevertheless having matured a bit as a “special” parent I could not stand by and have him being abused as part of his therapy, by bad tempered, out of control therapists. So I quickly taught him how to say “hit” after being smacked. He learned it with a great deal of merriment as we would pretend to beat him and then prompted him and then generalized this with a few people.

Then the day arrived. He walked out of the doctors room crying and said “hit”. I then accosted them on the issue of “hitting” and that was the end of his vision therapy, if you please, as they had no further wish to interact with me, who dared accuse them of this. I was depressed at the time, but more enraged and incensed at the kind of people who chose to work with special needs children and then would vent their frustrations out on them. So no breakdown this time. Luckily I was able to find other therapies that healed his vision.

These incidents are very painful because they bring home to me how easy it is for a therapist to abuse a nonverbal child in the guise of discipline. How desperate parents can sometimes put up with this abuse of their child because they assume that the skills and knowledge base of the therapist are such that they are indispensable. Nothing is actually further from the truth. No good can result from this kind of irresponsible intervention as will become clear from the following discussion.

When it’s a special child the issue of disciplining is all the more important as it has to be considered in the simultaneous contexts of learning, behavior and emotional development.

Lets take the first context, that is learning. This is the key issue which most of us would primarily focus on because by the very definitions of most disabling conditions, the childs learning ability would be impaired in some manner.

The trail blazing book on how to teach autistic children the “Me Book” by Ivor Lovaas in its first avatar discussed the carrot and stick method, whereby all behavior and learning which we wanted repeated would be reinforced with a reward and all behavior and learning that we wanted to extinguish would be punished. This method, was effective enough in evolving almost 50% of the autistic children in his 1987 break through study, to a level whereby they were indistinguishable from their normal peers. However the use of contingent aversives in his initial formula was heavily criticized. The ethics of using aversive techniques were decried, later it was also discussed that use of punishment did not allow generalization of the knowledge so acquired to take place

Punishment was replaced in this therapy by “differential reinforcement” and “extinction”. Differential reinforcement means that the responses which we wanted to encourage were heavily rewarded and the responses that we wanted to discourage were either not rewarded or rewarded less as appropriate. “Extinction” actually refers to absence of the specific reinforcement which is maintaining the behavior rather than just ignoring the behavior as is sometimes incorrectly applied.

However given Lovaas’s success in his 1987 study no one has been able to actually prove that the absence of contingent aversives is likely to lead to a more favorable outcome. Since almost equivalent outcomes have been obtained without aversives in the modern studies aversives are no longer promoted as a teaching strategy.

The next important aspect to study would be the aspect of effect of punishment on behavior. There are two things that one would look at- would the use of an aversive punishment as a deterrant consequence, the second and more important issue would be the long term adoption of aversive behavior by the child as a response mechanism. In simple English the first is rephrased as “spare the rod spoil the child” and the second would be “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”

Physical retribution is unlikely to act as a deterrant consequence for a particular behavior since it is unlikely that a person using it will be able to use it consistently as a consequence to that particular behavior. The only way that it can work as a deterrent is if the same punishment is used as a consistent consequence of a particular unwanted behavior. Physical retribution is generally a spur of the moment thing more likely to be prompted by the frustration of the person punishing than a planned and consistent response to a particular behavior.

Physical retribution can possibly “teach” aversive, aggressive behavior if used often with the child, because although some special children don’t learn imitatively (and some do) if an action is repeated often enough it will be picked up by the child. It will reinforced effectively from the first use, by the kind of response it is likely to evoke i.e. the stimuli that evoked the response will likely be replaced by another stimuli i.e. attention, the other person trying to protect themselves, fear etc.
“(Bandura, 1977; Hetherington and Parke, 1979) Punishment, for example, may lead to increases in aggressive behavior in the punished child since punishment can frustrate children. Further, the act of punishing a child may serve as an aggressive behavior which can be imitated by the child. The constant use of punishment as a behavior control technique might also lead the child to feel a resentment toward the punishing adult. Consequently, the parent or caretaker who typically uses punishment may find that the child avoids him/her and this increased alienation may then render the adult an ineffective socializer in general for the child.”(1)

So it can be concluded that using punishment is neither likely to speed up a child’s learning any skill, rather more likely to dampen motivation towards learning activities in general. It will not help modify behavior because of its inconsistent nature and it is likely to help the child acquire aggressive behavior.

So lets look at the emotional development of the child and how it is likely to be effected by punishment
“Punishment often leads to negative self evaluations. A person’s self concept) is based on the person’s self-evaluations; and these evaluations are derived, in large part, from significant others in the person’s environment. A person who is constantly the recipient of punishment is likely to form a negative self concept, and to develop perceptions of low self-efficacy and learned helplessness). Learners who perceive themselves as incompetent are likely to either avoid undertaking activities out of a fear of failure or to engage in undesirable activities which are related to their negative self evaluation. “ (2)
“Skinner believes that punishment in general is inefficient because the results are typically only of short duration, and the undesirable aspects of punishment [the psychological/social aspects] will be quite long lasting “The undesirable effects that may be long lasting from punishment include the development of excessive anxiety and lack of adventure and spontaneity.”(1)

So the long term negative effects of punishment can be summarized as reducing self confidence, inducing fear of failure, anxiety, lack of adventure, spontaneity and motivation, quite apart from increasing likelihood of negative activities. The relationship with the person administering punishment is also likely to weaken, thereby limiting any positive learning from the same person.

Finally it is said that at the most punishment can only teach what not to do – if that. We actually want to teach our children what to do.

A study on corporal punishment

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6 Responses to How Much Abuse……….The Disciplining of a Special Child

  1. priya says:

    it is sad to see the state of affairs in todays world where who we treat as saviours can infact be cruel to our children. i have heard of vision therapy before can u please share inofrmation where u went for this?
    it might be useful for my child too. please post a reply at ur earliest. thanks

  2. Ritika Vatsa says:

    What a great post Harshita! As sad as it was to read, it is so important to bring this issue into the limelight. Professionals who chose to work with children with special needs should be trained to work with the children’s strengths and not punish them for their weaknesses. At my hospital, all employees undergo ‘safety training’ where we are trained to protect the child and keep them ‘safe’ first and foremost in the event of a behavioral episode/physical assault. I’m so sorry Sahil had to go through all this trauma, and it hurts to think that countless more such children are probably going through something similar right now.

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