What Is "Emotional Danger"?

In late November 2003, the parents and their attorney met with school staff to discuss their son's expulsion from the public playground. A school staff member stated that it didn't "feel right" having him on the playground. The principal stated that she felt that the "emotional safety" of other children was at risk.

The staff member who made the statement that it did not "feel right" to have this autistic boy on the playground hereby indicates that the decision was based not on specific information but on a loosely-articulated emotional impression. I contend that this "feeling" is founded not on a rational assessment of his behavior; rather, it is the expression of the psychological defense mechanism of projective identification on both an individual and collective level.

School staff offered no concrete evidence and no incident reports of any physical danger posed by this boy to other students (except for an incident of group rowdiness involving a number of children). By expressing concern for the "emotional safety" of other students, school staff implied that they were applying criteria derived from developmental psychology to justify banning him from the playground.

This raises the question, what sort of interaction constitutes a threat to a child's healthy development?

School staff imply that neurologically typical children who have contact with an autistic child, who by virtue of his autism behaves in a different manner from theirs, are subject to emotional threat. Such an implication contradicts contemporary educational research that affirms the value of human diversity, and that affirms the fundamental right of disabled people to unimpeded access to all aspects of the community and the educational curriculum, not only for the benefit of those who are disabled, but for the benefit of all.

In fact, the emotional abuse of children by parents, authority figures, and peers, constitutes a threat to a child's healthy emotional development. Interactions that promote the development of distorted thinking, unjustified malice or maladaptive behaviors, constitute threats to children's healthy emotional development. Specific forms of emotional abuse include rejection, humiliation, isolation, and corruption; blaming a child for problems that are beyond his or her capacity to solve; consistently describing a child in negative terms; and burdening the child with rigid and/or unrealistic expectations. Adult behaviors are emotionally abusive when they promote in children low self-confidence, inability to trust, a chronic state of fear, emotional withdrawal, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, overt aggressiveness and passive-aggression, and cruelty towards others.

The actions of the school staff illustrate all of these forms of emotional abuse. By holding an autistic child at fault for his autistically-typical behavior, banishing him from the one community facility where he can socialize with other children, aggressively separating him from his best friend, and making unrealistic behavioral and communicative demands, the school staff demonstrate multiple behaviors consistent with emotional cruelty. By doing so in the presence of other children, by denying the aggressive and cruel nature of their actions, and by communicating to them that cruelty towards disabled people is acceptable, the school staff demonstrate behaviors that promote the corruption of those other children.

By expressing concern for the "emotional threat" supposedly posed by this autistic child — a child who has harmed no one — school staff offer an example of the psychological defense mechanism of projective identification, whereby:

the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by falsely attributing to another his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts. Unlike simple projecion, the individual does not fully disavow what is projected. Instead, the individual remains aware of his or her own affects or impulses but misattributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person.
DSM-IV, p. 756

This boy hereby becomes a victim of scapegoating, a process by which feelings of guilt, aggression, suffering and blame are displaced from a person or group onto an innocent individual, in order to fulfill an unconscious drive to resolve or avoid such bad feelings. By banishing an autistic child from the town playground, school staff and other presumably "normal" people consenting to the expulsion, falsely reassure themselves that they have cleansed the community of the emotional toxicity that in fact resides in themselves.

August 23, 2004

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