Disciplining: Quiet Rooms

It is a sad fact that many autism schools – and some special ed programs within regular schools – use what are euphemistically called ‘quiet rooms’ as a way of dealing disruptive behaviors.

These quiet rooms are in effect isolation punishment chambers and cause enormous amounts of harm.

Truly if there is anything that really ought to change in the short term in institutional approaches to autism it would be the removal once and for all of these punishment isolation chambers. They don’t work for autists and they don’t work for neuro-typical people either.

Solitary confinement is always the last resort in the prison system. The fact that we have solitary confinement as part of a special education program means, that that program is thinking along prison lines, not along educational lines. Children regularly experiencing such an abuse are without a doubt mentally and emotionally scarred.

So why don’t they work and what can one offer as a more functional alternative?

The flaw in the strategy is that humans are most motivated by social interaction. Take a child with above average levels of anxiety – as is the case with so many young autists and other children with sensory issues – and then put them into solitary confinement and you create panic. The reason for this panic is because at the root instinctive level, we are programmed to know that ostracism from the group leaves and individual vulnerable to predators. Our hunting and gathering brains tell us that to be alone in an hostile environment is to be close to potential death. The amygdala therefore goes on high alert and instead of being able to think itself out of a situation, the brain, now awash with cortisol, cannot think rationally.

Do this repeatedly and you create negative neuroplasticity i.e. scarring within the brain – that massively eroded mental functionality. It’s a great mistake to isolate any child, let alone a child with an overdeveloped amygdala.

So now we know why quiet rooms don’t work, but if a child is disrupting a whole class, what do we do?

Instead of isolating them in a confinement cell, much more effective is to take them outside to run. In a natural environment where they can move freely, the child can run off their excess nervous energy, create endorphins, oxygenate the brain and create Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which all help the prefrontal cortex to come into play therefore allow reason to kick in.

If you can add hugs and activities that rock the hips in rhythm – e.g. swings, see saws, trampolines – then you can get an even better effect because this type of hip rocking causes the body to produce oxytocin which is the antidote to cortisol and switches off the amygdala. So in fact, when a child is being disruptive, one should do the opposite of confining him – take him out and run and play in nature, and then when the nervous energy has been expended and the brain is calm, one can reenter the classroom/group-setting that one was in before.

Some people worry, that this is simply rewarding bad behavior but the neuroscience says otherwise. Children on the autism spectrum typically do not associate reward and punishment, extrinsic motivation and other strategies aimed at encouraging ‘good behavior’ in neuro-typical children because their capacity for Theory of Mind, which is necessary for such concepts to be understood, does not develop until somewhat later. So there is no danger of the autistic child perceiving being let out to run as a reward for bad behavior which they will then manipulate later.

Instead it is simply a strategy to return to functionality and to breed an ever growing functionality in the brain rather than scarring through excess cortisol, which is the long term effect of using isolation rooms.