Making Special Education Actually Work

Fecal Smearing, Disability, and the January 6, 2021 Insurrection

February 4, 2022

PHOTO: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This is not a pleasant topic at all, so I want to start out this post/podcast with the understanding that I know this isn't a pleasant topic. That doesn't make it something to avoid, however. Problems aren't solved by pretending they don't exist.

For those of us who work with people with significant mental disabilities, fecal smearing, otherwise knows as “scatolia,” is a behavior we usually encounter among individuals with significant developmental disabilities and dementia. These behaviors often happen among these populations very frequently alongside other bowel-related health issues, such as constipation and encopresis. Simply put, constipation is poop not coming out and encopresis is poop not staying in.

The function of most fecal smearing behaviors appears to be communicative, especially among individuals who are nonverbal or have limited verbal abilities. In verbal individuals who engage in these behaviors, other significant mental impairments are still present, whether its the loss of mental functioning due to dementia; the failure of mental maturity due to developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities and/or autism; or some forms of mental illness. Fecal throwing and smearing can also be seen among other primates. It's a primitive, infantile behavior.

When I was 20 years old, I worked in a nursing home providing hands-on care to medically fragile and/or mentally compromised elderly people. All of us knew who the poop-throwers were. The one on my wing was also an Evangelical Christian who would sing church hymns while throwing her poop at anyone passing by and accusing them of being the Devil. The exception was the visiting Evangelical pastor who would stop by to visit the patients every week, but he would come down the hallway singing a hymn at the top of his lungs so she would know it was him before he walked into her room, or he would get it, too.

I encountered fecal smearing behaviors once again when I finished my undergraduate degree and started working as a job coach in the community with adults challenged by developmental disabilities. One of the young men on my caseload was a fairly capable individual with autism who, in spite of his many attributes that made him employable to bus tables, serve drinks, and perform general maintenance in a restaurant, would engage in fecal smearing whenever someone made him upset. What had started as a behavior when he was younger with less language abilities had become a deeply entrenched learned behavior that followed him into adulthood long after he had developed completely intact verbal communication skills.

The differences between these two examples from my own life were important to note. In the nursing home, the woman on my wing with fecal throwing behaviors was kept on laxatives so that her feces wasn't solid enough to hold in her hand for throwing. Cleaning up bedpans was infinitely less work and trauma than jumping into the hazmat shower fully clothed and going home in scrubs from the supply closet because our own clothes had been ruined.

By comparison, the young man who struggled to hold onto a job and a group home placement because of this behavior was successfully broken of the habit through Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and psychotropic medication management to address anxiety and depression. Because he was verbal, he was able to talk with his therapist about the feelings he was having when he engaged in these behaviors and we were able to come up with a plan that helped him deal with those feelings appropriately, eventually extinguishing the scatolia altogether. He's been employed every time I've encountered him since, mostly in the community eating at the restaurants where he has worked.

What we discovered based on what he was telling us is that, historically, he had found himself in situations where he couldn't tell people what he was thinking for lack of language and, later, as the language started coming on, because he was afraid to complain about certain things for fear of retaliation or punishment. The degree to which he was correct in his perceptions about those past experiences is not as important as the fact that he was afraid to say anything with words, but he could express himself non-verbally through fecal smearing.

Fecal smearing behaviors tend to orient around protest, disagreement, and retaliation, based on what little research has been conducted on the topic so far. Most of the available research comes from mental institutions and long-term care facilities. I could find no research about fecal smearing happening in the general community, though such research may exist and I just couldn't find it. So much of the research is hidden behind paywalls that it's not accessible to everyday people, which is a topic of discussion all to itself for another time.

I brought this subject up in my book club last night (we're currently reading The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW). One of the other club members shared that her home had been broken into years ago and robbed. The robbers also pooped on her wooden floors, ruining the finish, and she had to wait for a year-and-a-half to have the time and money to refinish her floors, with the damaged spot where the poop had been, serving as a daily reminder of the sense of violation she had experienced. Now that I think about it, the same thing happened to my grandparents in the 1990s while they were on an RV trip, only the poop was on their walls.

My book club friend stated the police officers who had responded to the call advised her that this was a common behavior witnessed among break-in robberies like hers. Law enforcement may be a better source of information about the prevalence of fecal smearing in the general community, which goes to the degree to which we have delegated the responsibilities of our mental health agencies to law enforcement. Behavioral researchers should look there for data about the frequency with which these incidents occur and how they are addressed.

Needless to say, there was no scholarly research I could find that was specific to the fecal smearing behaviors that happened during the Insurrection of January 6, 2021, at the Capitol of the United States of America. Only official records from the government and reports in the media capture the incident. I'm quoting the Trial Memorandum of the U.S. House of Representatives from the second impeachment proceedings against the 45th president of the United States, here:

Once inside, insurrectionists desecrated and vandalized the Capitol. They ransacked Congressional Leadership offices—breaking windows and furniture, and stealing electronics and other sensitive material. They left bullet marks in the walls, looted art, smeared feces in hallways,and destroyed monuments … [Emphasis added.]

This has been bothering me ever since it was first reported shortly after the Insurrection that fecal smearing had occurred during this incident as well. Based on what I already know about fecal smearing behaviors, what that tells me is that at least one person with profound disabilities was among the Insurrectionists.

Based on the other overt behaviors of the Insurrectionists, it's safe to say that America's mental health crisis reached an apex of sorts, though it isn't done showing itself, yet, based on the continuing domestic terrorism threats we all still face. It's an Extinction Burst of a sort, and one we cannot afford to reinforce. These individuals are seeking reinforcement for behaviors that were once rewarded and escalating their behaviors when the rewards are not forthcoming.

I think they're all cries for help, but the behaviors are so off-putting to most other people that they are disinclined to help and eager to ostracize anyone engaging in them. I think ostracizing these people helps the rest of us avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with these behaviors, but it's not a democratic response, much less an ethical one, We need a plan as a people on how to solve these problems, not punish people for having them. I'm not saying that people who commit crimes shouldn't pay for them. I'm saying that the causes of criminal behaviors have to be addressed so they don't happen in the first place. There is way too much money being made on incarcerating Americans instead of helping them.

The bigger concern for me, these days, though, is how many other people in positions of power actually understand the severity of our nation's mental health crisis and choose to exploit these individuals rather than meet their needs, such as the 45th president of the United States, for example. Protest, disagreement, and retaliation are the usual communicative functions of fecal smearing, and the Insurrection-related fecal smearing doesn't appear to be different in that regard. Everyone involved in the Insurrection was there to protest, disagree, and retaliate. What this specific form of communication tells us is that the people who engaged in it felt desperate enough to express their feelings through these actions rather than words, as if words had failed them and/or they didn't feel safe to use them.

When people are mentally impaired and don't fully understand everything going on around them, they can easily become confused, misled, and manipulated by others. They are often aware when others are mistreating them even if they don't fully understand the hows and whys. They know when they find themselves in a disadvantaged situation and will harbor valid resentments about it, but they often don't know who did what to make it happen, much less what to do to make things better.

When you have a right to be angry but you don't know how to get out of the situation, and no one is stepping up to help you, it's easy to become angry at everyone. You feel like the whole world is against you and there's nothing you can do. At that point, you default to the highest stage of social emotional development you've completely mastered, which may be well below your chronological age depending on the degree to which your social emotional development was healthy or not. Once someone becomes so overwhelmed emotionally in the absence of a solution that they start freaking out, very childlike – even infantile – behaviors are likely to ensue.

In the name of “liberty” and “freedom,” we've absolved ourselves of any responsibilities for the welfare of our neighbors. Personal liberty becomes confused with narcissism. People pay lip service to the ideals of the Constitution while exploiting their neighbors for financial gain. Money is an imaginary construct that many people value more than human life.

Many of these same people claim to be true believers in Christ, effectively singing church hymns as they sling their poo at everyone else. I don't recall any part of the New Testament encouraging that kind of behavior, but religious scholars who have studied the texts more closely than I have are welcome to correct me if I'm wrong.

Most of us understand that the people who got sucked into the 45th president's own mental health crisis are also not well, but they also account for approximately one-third of our population. That makes them a dangerous minority that has now grown into a domestic terrorism problem. It puts the assertions by the majority of Muslims around the world that Islam is not a religion of violence into context, now that we've got our own violent religious radicals here at home calling themselves Christians.

The inextricable intertwining of religion and mental health problems in societies is yet another topic for a separate conversation, but I have to point out that there are many responsible faith leaders struggling to lead as many of their congregationalists abandon the teachings of Christ to follow every wolf in sheep's clothing that steps into their path. American commercialism and its own brand of capitalism have created a competitive mindset about everything in our culture.

It's “My high school football team is going to crush your high school football team.” It's, “My church is made up of the chosen and all the other churches are full of people going to Hell.” It's, “My neighborhood is the best and everyone else lives in a dump.” Where is this narcissistic drive to be “better” than everyone else coming from in a society that's supposed to be democratic? Why do we feel driven to create a caste of “losers” to make ourselves feel like “winners”? How does hurting other people make someone a “winner”?

People have developed brand loyalties around things that aren't actually brands. American consumerism and its obscene obsession with the pursuit of material wealth has grossly undermined the uniform message of every great faith. Wanting more than what one needs while others go without contradicts every pious teaching of every great religious leader the world has ever remembered. We're all supposed to be collaborating with each other, not competing with each other, to survive as a species.

Raising children from birth under conditions that deprive them of developmentally necessary opportunities to reach adulthood physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually intact, is an uphill battle. The science is clear that the type of family support system an individual has is irrelevant; what matters is whether they have any type of support system at all.

Children growing up in homeless shelters with after school tutoring, social services, higher education and job placement services for parents, etc., remain as academically intrinsically motivated as children living in traditional family homes with access to resources. The gender identity and sexual orientations of parents have zero bearing on the quality of their parenting. Parenting becomes poor when it fails to nurture childhood development, regardless of the gender or orientation of the parent.

What we can safely deduce from witnessing current events as it relates to the known science is that being raised in economic extremes, whether extreme poverty or extreme wealth, deprives children of developmental opportunities that undermine their mental, emotional, and communicative growth. Extremely wealthy children are at risk of never learning how to do anything for themselves and will implode the minute they have to deal with serious life challenges. Extremely poor children are at risk of malnutrition, homelessness, and other hardships that make mere survival the priority without the opportunities to work on any other part of their development.

As the middle class in America continues to disappear, we're at risk of more and more people ending up at one economic extreme or the other and their children growing up thinking that humanity is truly divided as a matter of nature into two classes: the “haves” and the “have nots.” If that's all they see growing up, the divide becomes a hard and fast expected part of society. What do you think happens to a society that is made up entirely of people who failed to reach developmental maturity? It goes Lord of the Flies pretty quickly, after that.

In my ever-worried imagination, under such circumstances, humans will return to the trees if we survive as a species at all. I keep thinking, “Maybe the bonobos will have a better go at sentience than we did.” It makes me want to teach them sign language just so I can tell them all the mistakes we've made and what to avoid. The first thing I'll teach them is, “Use your words, not your poop.”

Returning the present issue of poop-smeared threats to our democracy wrapped in Confederate flags, I have a theory about one particular aspect of the problem that I haven't seen discussed in the news about the Select Committee's investigation into the Insurrection of January 6, 2021. In my line of work, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act come up quite frequently. When I see things that do not appear to conform with their requirements, they jump out at me.

Given that were clearly dealing with people struggling with mental disabilities of one type or another, and given that social media has been instrumental in feeding them misinformation while giving them the tools to organize, it appears to me that the social media algorithms are not coded in a manner that reasonably accommodates users with the types of mental disabilities that make them vulnerable to misinformation and recruiting tactics of foreign adversaries and domestic terrorists.

If anything, social media's absence of reasonable accommodations in its coding for users with these types of mental issues is creating more domestic terrorists than we already had in the first place, suddenly taking them from the fringes of our society to a sizable, dangerous minority of violent people bent on overthrowing the government. In the absence of effective mental health interventions, the manipulators swooped in and weaponized our own neglected mentally impaired citizens against us.

What we don't take care of will take care of us. That's the whole reason that “being careful” is so important. “Being careful” isn't about avoiding problems, it's about being full of care. Being caring means being responsible for your community as well as yourself and your immediate loved ones. It takes a village, as they say, but if you neglect your village, you cease to be part of it.

We're all different for a reason. Whether you're a person of faith and see it as a component of our Creator's Great Plan or you're a secularist who sees it as a function of nature and evolution, or you're like me and think that nature and evolution are parts of the Creator's Great Plan, it's an obvious fact that we're all meant to be different by design.

The failure to appreciate the role that diversity serves for the balance of everything has led to efforts by a few unstable individuals who manage to acquire power and try to remake humanity over into a monolith, casting out those who, by design, cannot conform to their invented social hierarchies. This is the essence of discrimination. It's what causes people with disabilities to be regarded as less than human.

Anyone who is discriminated against for any other reason should be empathetic to the discrimination experienced by people with mental disabilities that affect their behaviors, but our knee-jerk reaction is to be repulsed by the most extreme behaviors in which we see these people behave. These behaviors, while often intolerable and highly inappropriate, are still cries for help, we need to see them that way, and we need to collectively demand our elected officials to enforce the ADA and Section 504 when it comes to social media algorithms.

My theory is that, if we use the existing language of the ADA and, where applicable, Section 504, to compel social media platforms to stop preying on the weakest minds among us, it will not only create jobs for coders knowledgeable of the law, but also enforcement officials knowledgeable of the code. Rather than looking at the daunting task of coding the Code into social media platforms as an insurmountable challenge, it should be seen as a significant step towards true democracy that creates desperately needed jobs.

The solution would solve more than one significant problem in this country and serve as an example of adult-level problem-solving for the rest of the world. Marketing research tells us that customer loyalty is greater after a vendor has had to work with a customer to solve a problem than if there was never any problem at all. It's not a source of shame for America to trip over its own feet and experience growing pains as it sheds the hypocrisy and anti-democratic practices of the past; what makes it shameful or not is how we respond.

If we can bounce back from the threats our democracy if facing right now with science across the board in every domain of need, including our nation's ongoing mental health crisis, and enforce the ADA and, where appropriate, Section 504, on social media platforms, no additional regulations are necessarily needed. If any other regulations of social media become necessary above and beyond that, so long as the First Amendment is still protected while also preventing troubled people from getting sucked down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, we'll redeem ourselves in the eyes of the world. At least, that's my theory.

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