When I was researching language pragmatics for my recent echolalia and scripting post, I came across an IEP goal bank. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these terms, IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan, which is a personalized document that describes an educational program designed to meet the needs of a child who is enrolled in special education. It includes, among other things, information about current performance, annual goals, services, accommodations, and progress.
Presumably to make these unwieldy documents easier to create, there are databases (goal banks) of scripted goals and objectives (sub-tasks of goals). One can search the goal bank for items that can be inserted into a child’s IEP with a small amount of customization. Of course, I couldn’t resist digging through the databases to see what types of goals autistic children are being asked to meet.
It quickly became obvious to me that I, as a 45-year-old autistic adult, could not consistently meet many of the social and communication goals and objectives that autistic elementary school students are expected to achieve. As I kept digging, patterns began to emerge.
Here are some typical goals (with commentary on each to follow):
- Student will initiate varied appropriate topics with others 4/5 opportunities to do so.
- Student will monitor eye contact, body language, and tone of voice during conversation.
- When greeted by peers and adults the student will appropriately respond within 3 seconds.
- Given a verbal label of a category, student will begin to name 5 familiar items that belong to that category within 3 seconds.
- Given instruction, student will develop auditory processing of verbal material and direction following skills such that in order to function adequately in the classroom with decreasing amounts of assistance.
Student will maintain eye contact [listed as the first objective in a list of objectives working toward a communication goal for a completely nonverbal student]
Let’s look at these individually to see why they’re problematic for most autistic people, not just the elementary school-aged kids for whom they’re intended.
#1 is clearly code for “don’t talk about special interests.” In looking through the goal banks I found a lot of coded language being used to camouflage goals meant to extinguish natural autistic behavior. For example, I also found, “Will engage in appropriate play activities 80% of the time across all settings.” I’ve seen this type of thing talked about enough by “experts” to know that pretending to have a tea party is appropriate and lining up Hot Wheels by color is inappropriate. Again, this is code for “look and act less autistic.”
For an autistic child (and many autistic adults), #2 is the equivalent of asking someone to ride a unicycle while juggling circular saw blades and breathing fire. You might have the concentration to do one or two of those things simultaneously, but doing all of them at once? Even if you can, you’ll have zero cognitive resources left for doing anything else. Like, say, enjoying the unicycle ride (or the conversation).
#3, with its ridiculous 3-second time limit, assumes that the child can somehow make their auditory processing issues, language production issues, and/or sensory processing difficulties disappear. All three can play a role in making it difficult to quickly and “appropriately” respond to unexpected greetings and all 3 could be accommodated in a way that makes social interaction less stressful.
I have no idea what the point of #4 is or what life skill this is teaching autistic children. Is there some significance to these 3-second rules? I can see this being a game that kids play to expand their language capacity and knowledge of the world, but is it necessary that it be done to a stopwatch?
In #5, the level of ignorance about how an auditory processing delay/difficulty works is staggering.Telling an autistic student to “develop auditory processing” to “function adequately in the classroom” is the equivalent of telling a blind student to “develop sight” so they can see the blackboard and no longer require accommodations for their disability. Is the child being expected to overcome a physical deficit by sheer force of will? Or maybe practice? There are specific steps that can be taken to mitigate an auditory processing disorder, but “develop auditory processing” isn’t one that has worked for me and I’ve got four decades of practice behind me. This is a terrific example of a goal to fix the child being used as a substitute for accommodations (i.e. medical vs. social model of disability).
Finally, why is #6 the first thing a completely nonverbal student is being asked to master? Looking at someone should not be prioritized over having a functional means of communication. Eye contact is a social signal that humans have learned to interpret as “I’m paying attention.” It’s also a social signal that many autistic people find uncomfortable and unnatural. Why not substitute an equally viable social signal that says “I’m paying attention”? There are many to choose from: nodding, signing, pointing to a picture or some other gesture might work for a nonspeaking child. For children comfortable with speech, a simple “got it” or “I understand” can play the same role as eye contact between teacher and student or parent and child. Making eye contact to acknowledge another person during a conversation isn’t some immutable universal law like gravity. We made it up, we can change it.
The goals that I listed above, and those like them, are a mix of unreasonable, misguided, biased, and just plain unhelpful. Sadly, I was able to find worse. Many of the social, communication and life skills goals/objectives in the databanks prioritize compliance.
- Student will show desire to please teacher or supervisor in 2 out of 4 opportunities.
- Student will smile in response to attention by adult.
- Student will maintain an appropriate vocal tone (not sharp or snappy) and facial expressions (not angry or disgusted with others).
- Student will follow rules in group games led by an older child.
- Student will cooperate with adult requests
- Student will tolerate tactile stimulation.
Teaching autistic children blanket rules like “cooperate with adult requests”, “always respond to adult attention with a smile” or “follow rules of an older child” is just plain dangerous. Especially when it’s combined with messages like “you aren’t entitled to have bodily autonomy (#6) or to express negative emotions (#3)”.
Why are these goals dangerous? Autistic kids aren’t good at negotiating social situations to begin with. They’re also very literal, take rules seriously, and often have trouble knowing when they should make an exception to a rule. Teaching them that they should always comply with an adult or older child is basically grooming them for potential abuse.
Identifying Unreasonable Goals
What makes a goal unreasonable? Here are some patterns that I identified:
- Unreasonable goals prioritize “normalization” or compliance over objectives that benefit the student (like having a means of communication).
- Unreasonable goals don’t recognize autistic body language and socialization preferences as valid.
- Unreasonable goals don’t acknowledge as a valid and accommodate the student’s areas of disability.
- Unreasonable goals demand more from a young student than the average autistic adult is capable of.
I’m sure there are more, but even applying those four tests would be a good start toward creating more useful and productive goals.
What are Reasonable Goals?
While discussing this on Tumblr, which is where I first posted my thoughts in a fit of pique, one person objected to my characterization of these types of goals as unreasonable. “But if you don’t tell autistic kids to always cooperate with adult requests, they’ll just run into the street and get hit by a bus!” they protested (I’m paraphrasing, but only a little).
Most people saw this for the obvious straw man argument that it is, but let me clearly spell out that I’m not saying we should let autistic kids run in front of buses or do other harmful things to themselves or others.
“Always comply with adults” teaches unquestioning compliance, even with potentially harmful-to-the-child demands.
“Never walk into the street by yourself” and other situation-specific rules teach children about potential dangers and how to avoid them.
Similarly, “tolerate tactile stimulation” takes away a child’s bodily autonomy and fails to acknowledge that sensory sensitivities are a real source of physical discomfort and/or pain.
“Here are the available clothing or personal grooming options, let’s find out which ones work best for you” gives a child control over their body and helps them learn how to manage sensory sensitivities, a skill they are going to need for the rest of their lives.
“You’re not allowed to express anger, disgust or impatience” teaches a child to suppress negative emotions to please others.
A better goal would be helping the child to identify their emotions and find safe, constructive ways to express them. This is especially important in light of how many autistic adults report being alexithymic to some degree.
I’m certainly not against IEPs or having goals or autistic kids learning social, communication and life skills. In fact, the IEP banks offered plenty of examples of goals that I thought were great, though most of the good ones were in the academic rather than social and communication categories. What I am against is goals that focus primarily on making kids less autistic or more compliant rather than equipping them with skills that are useful to them.