One of the topics DEEPLY explored in experiential learning is choice. It is not only the endless discussion of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation that all professional educators debate, it is a safety issue on the challenge course. As I understand it, ALL challenge experience facilities (ropes courses, team building, zip tours - for education, therapy, or fun) operate under the "industry standard" of Challenge By Choice.
A quick definition/ explanation: It means that participants are asked to choose to be challenged. This practice requires that the facilitator/ teacher understand and expect that every single participant not only owns the choice to participate, but also owns the choice of how much they will participate. In essence, we are saying to participants, "you will get out of this as much as you put into it." While this is a pretty universal truth, on the challenge course it means that we (the "leader"/ facilitator) recognize that these activities will be challenging (invaded personal space, fear of heights, etc.) and that it is the participant's responsibility to participate (to actively play games, to follow rules, and to make a sincere effort to complete tasks). In practical application, it means that when I ask a participant to touch their toes, they will make an honest effort, and if the participant does not want to jump off the telephone pole, I will not push them off.
So the discussion of choice becomes a safety issue, a liability issue. The participant paid to climb up the pole, that is the product they requested. But if we force them to, we are violating their personal soveriegnty - opening ourselves up to a lawsuit for emotional damages, and possibly physical damages if they are so defiant they refuse to wear/ use the equipment correctly. This is particularly problematic for school groups. The education system is set up to demand and expect compliance. Period. The school has spent good taxpayers money to bring this kid out, and by God (I guess, not God) that kid better learn something! The school is investing in the challenge course to do what the classroom cannot - to BE the catalytic event that instigates change. Particularly for "at risk" youth, the whole expectation of the customer (the school or therapist - the "grown-ups") is based on a change of behavior expected to be seen in the youth (the kid will start being nicer, be more social, "grow up", etc.).
This is a VERY deep and concerning discussion. I mean if you paid me to challenge you today, then I had better deliver! By signing a contract, the school/ group has asked me to be ready for 10 people to climb the wall today. If all 10 don't make it, do you still get charged? If 3 of the people you paid for change their mind after looking at it, do you get a check back? I have to pay my instructor for their time and skill whether you go up or not. And what did you pay me for? Did you pay me to challenge you? or did you pay me to climb a wall? Did you pay me to build your team? Or did you pay me to experience 4 different elements/ initiatives/ activities? If you time culminates in a better repoire(sp?) between team mates, is that team building? Or will you decide that the team is "built" after you have tested productivity for a month? If one group discovers ways to support each other's fears (not make fun of the one who didn't go up) and another group learns to analyze their success (how come you all went up) - did they both "build team"? If you sought challenge, and I help you go as far as you can go, but it is more or less far than others, who's choice is that? I mean, if the corporation wants to see the team performance improve, do you think that ALL the members of the team need to work on the exact same skill? Or that some would benefit from communication while others may need to practice tolerance? Who makes that choice? Is the participant supposed to know what they are bad at? Does the boss get to decide what each gets to work on? Am I supposed to asses everyone of them and then lead them to each place/ skill?
The easy answer is that the choice is shared responsibility of ALL those parties, right?
So the hard question: where are the lines?
I am learning more & more about how to navigate these lines every day - on the challenge course. Working with schools, I have to honor not only the dictatorial compliance expected of students, and the personal growth of each student, and our liability as a facility - I have to play that fine art of pushing a little hard or a little softly, pleading, cajoling, daring, and inviting the student to participate, and then honoring whatever God may have led that child to see/ learn while emphasizing what the school expects them "to get out of it" (learning goal). I get better all the time, but ultimately, what I am doing is LOVING each child - trying to listen with my heart and act with my gut feeling.
In this way, I see what I do to teach as the same thing I do to parent.
SO now - the question of CHOICE and AUTONOMY...
In dealing with autism and SPD - the "treatment" is usually about choice - providing the affected person the ability to control their environment, or their choice to be in their environment. Always provide an exit. The more choice and control the autistic/ spd person has, the less meltdowns they will experience - or at least they will be better equipped to cope with their meltdown.
But how much choice do they ACTUALLY have?
My Aspie chooses to eat tuna fish for breakfast, and occasionally lick windows, and wear soft pants, and take 4 showers a day, and argue when asked to write, and learn more about dinosaurs, and tell me about Star Wars.
ARE those his choices? If I allow him access to tuna instead of eggs, is it MY choice? If I discipline him for licking windows, is that MY choice? If I let him watch Star Wars, is it MY choice?
I have been teaching MANY years, I have seen kids who walk all over their parents, kids who are seeking an adult to stand up to them and show them limits. And I have seen parents who walk all over their kids, never allowing the Gift God made them to shine through. As I write this the "answer" seems easy: moderation/ balance. Ask the kid to try to sport, even "make" them complete one season, but don't guilt them into it. Allow the kid to explore fashion, but not "dress like a whore" (or wear a bathing suit to church, or go shoe-less at the grocery store).
Somehow it seems more complicated with the autistic child. They are often so unrelatable - meaning I (the parent) have trouble finding the window through which to relate to them) that I MUST start from the premise that behavior = communication - it's ALL I've got. So when he licks the window - WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Am I supposed to correct him? Or observe long enough to figure out what he is "seeking"? In all honesty, it doesn't bother ME that he licks windows, but most people I mention that behavior too are grossed out - so should it be a choice I take away from him? If he is arguing instead of writing, there MUST be a reason. So does it hurt him? Or is it just hard? Should he learn how to do it anyway? I mean don't "regular" people learn to do things that hurt - like pluck hair/ rip off bandaids? (or wear high heels) So should I respect HIS choice to avoid pain, or MY choice to equip him with a skill that will protect him as he ages? (I mean, technically, I have a huge callus where my pen rides, so haven't I been hurting myself for years to write? Can't he "just" do that too? Should he have to?)
If the answer is "moderation/ balance" and his personal middle is not the majority middle, or the "like-group-statistical-analysis" middle, then IS it balanced? and WHO's choice is that!? I mean if a kid is making choices to "test limits", shouldn't I make the choice to show draw the line?
Where is the line between "It is the parent's job to equip and guide a child into adulthood" and "God made you [child], so I just need to let your light shine"? Where is the line between my responsibility as a parent to help you and my responsibility as a parent to honor your giftedness? How do I know how much choice you NEED and how much choice I need to curtail?
DOES a person need autonomy? Or does a person need certainty? HOW DO I FIND THE BALANCE?
Is this REALLY a different parenting journey than "typical" parents have?