Crime and Punishment: Why Ethan Only Wants a Pencil (or eraser)

Rewards and punishment is the lowest form of education.  Chuang Tzu

Where I work, the consequence of skipping class ultimately leads to suspension. Think that one over. Sometimes the punishment isn’t a punishment.

Let’s face it. It’s impossible to escape a system of rewards and/or punishments. The problem is that they don’t work for Ethan, and everywhere he goes, he is introduced to a new system, and in the end they never work.

Ethan wants things. He will work to get things. You might think that this would be a perfect scenario for a reward systems. It’s not.

The schools start off every year thinking that their system will work. We meet with Ethan’s teachers at the beginning of the year to let them know of the problems he has with rewards. I can always see it in their eyes . They are thinking, “My system will work.” But it never does. Never.

Here is Ethan, a kid, as I said before, who wants things. He obsesses over things. He shops online. He researches and he can spit out in detail anything you want to know about what he wants. If he wants a bearded dragon, he can tell you whatever you need to know. That’s how he frames the argument for getting the thing he wants. He can do it for whatever he wants such as a guinea pig, hamster, mouse, rat, snake, dog, cat, sloth, hedgehog, tarantula, or pig, all animals that he has asked for. And I know there are more that I cannot recall. Now, here’s the class offering some reward if he follows the rules.  And he does, sometimes for a week, maybe even a month. He earns the points, gets the tokens, and goes to the school store and gets a pencil. Then he wants another pencil, and someone will give him a pencil because it’s just a pencil. Then he wants another pencil. Then he declares that he has a ‘collection’ of pencils. He says to someone with a pencil. “Hey, I really like that pencil. You know I collect pencils,” and soon he has another pencil. He earns more tokens. Back to the school store and he gets an eraser. “I collect erasers.” Soon, there is nothing in the store he wants. He doesn’t have motivation for the points anymore. All he wants is a pencil, or an eraser. He ‘finds’ pencils and erasers. He gets in trouble for ‘finding’ pencils and erasers. He doesn’t earn a trip to the school store. He gets angry. He loses motivation. Then the scramble is on. This reward no longer holds value for Ethan.

At Ethan’s current location, the system is so complicated that I struggle with understanding it. Ethan can’t explain it, and I don’t think he knows how it works any better than I do. It’s based on levels. There are five. Everyone starts at level two and works to move to level five.  Ethan has never reached level three. He fluctuates between level one and two. This is my understanding of how it works:

  1. Ethan can earn points throughout the day.
  2. Ethan can lose points during the day if he gets what they call categories. Categories result in points taken away.
  3. If Ethan earns enough points over a period of time, he can move up a level (1 to 2)
  4. Each level is progressively harder to reach, requiring more points, and not allowing categories.

Let’s take school for an example. Ethan can earn points for attending school, interacting with peers appropriately, and interacting with the teacher appropriately. There are four periods. He can earn two points for each task. He can earn up to 24 points if he performs each task appropriately. If he does not attend school. He receives no points and receives a category which takes away points. So, if he misses two classes, he can only receive 12 points, but he will lose more points for categories he is assigned for missing the classes. I’m lost already; it’s like I have been dropped into a cricket match and asked to keep score.

Disciplining Ethan does not work. Taking away privileges does not work. I have learned over the course of time that a punishment for him is truly worthless. He is satisfied to sit around and do nothing. There’s nothing that can be taken away that in any way serves as a punishment for him, with the possible exception of Legos. It’s not about the after. It’s about the before. It’s about reinforcing the positives. And when a problem is about to happen, it’s about removing Ethan from the situation. I can work to prevent it, head it off as it happens, or ride out the storm if it comes. I know the signs.

So what can we do? What can a facility or school do when they don’t know Ethan? Even a small facility such as the one where he is currently placed doesn’t have the staffing to handle or understand the unique difficulties that come along with Ethan.

What works for many does not work for all. Ethan has proven to be one of the few in almost all instances. I’m proud of his unique thoughts and ideas. I like that he is his own person and is comfortable in his own skin. He doesn’t and we don’t try to define him as Autistic. Or bipolar, or depressed, or OCD or anxious. Ethan’s house is messy (figuratively and literally).  Everywhere he goes he encounters a system in which he will never neatly fit. Despite the importance of a schedule or the fixation on a topic that comes along with the ASD diagnosis, he doesn’t fit neatly into what you have. He requires flexibility and patience while remaining rigid with his schedule.

So it is very likely that Ethan will remain on level two for most of his time at YF. He may pop up to three. Who knows? Maybe he will skyrocket to level five. We can live with a two. I know that maintaining a two is difficult for him. Once that rapid cycling bipolar gets going, he’s on an express train to level one.

We’re still hoping that his time there will quickly be coming to an end.

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