Discipline and Punishment in Light of Autism

In Selina Doran & Laura Botell (eds.), Reframing Punishment: Making Visible Bodies, Silence and De-humanisation (2014)
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If one can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners, one can surely judge a society by how it treats cognitively- and learning-impaired children. In the United States children with physical and cognitive impairments are subjected to higher rates of corporal punishment than are non-disabled children. Children with disabilities make up just over 13% of the student population in the U.S. yet make up over 18% of those children who receive corporal punishment. Autistic children are among the most likely to receive corporal punishment. Although they may deny or redescribe particular instances of corporal punishment or their use of restraints, educators defend such actions as legitimate punishment. In this paper, I assess the logic underlying the use of restraints and corporal punishment on autistic children by educators. The rationalizations for the corporal punishment or restraint of autistics stems from the educator’s desire to control the autistic children so as to end typical autistic behaviors such as rocking, repetitive verbalizations, or “flapping” but also the autistic child’s non-affective responses such as not appearing to feel remorse or shame or the absence of a verbal acknowledgement of remorse or shame. The educators assume that the autistic’s failure to exhibit the desired responses is evidence of the autistic’s moral incorrigibility and is, therefore, evidence of the appropriateness of corporal punishment. But this assumption of the incorrigibility of the autistic child is questionable. Indeed accepting this incorrigibility assumption reveals two important problems. First, instructors using physical punishment on autistic children do not understand autism. Second, they are not working with a tenable conception of punishment. Any action undertaken to induce socially acceptable behaviors (whether it be the end of autistic acts or responses such as remorse) is to fail to understand what the legitimate punishment of children is about.
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