School Segregation, Then and Now
On Sunday, May 1st, 2005, Kenneth B. Clark died at age 90. He was a prominent African-American psychologist and educator whose research on the harm done to children by racially segregated schools, published in 1950, was the pivotal evidence before the United States Supreme Court in its 1954 decision declaring racial segregation in the schools to be unconstitutional. His report demonstrated the extent to which minority children in segregated schools thought of themselves and their race as bad and inferior.
Over half a century later, many children—those with neurological differences—are still routinely segregated in the United States and in schools worldwide. Just as in the days of racial segregation, there are some families who seek to protect their children from the damaging stigma of inferiority by hiding their differences, educating them at home or in small private schools, and teaching them how to "pass" in the intolerant majority culture. A brief description of the dusty closets inhabited by these families can be found on the Passing for Neurotypical website.
There are other families who attempt to train the most noticeable autistic behaviors out of their children before they start school, in the hope that the children will be able to avoid placement in special-needs classes if they are not obviously autistic. Such parents usually believe that they are helping their children to succeed in life by suppressing their differences. However, many young people cannot cope with the stress of constantly being expected to pretend to be something they are not, and the results can be tragic, as discussed in Let's Pretend.
Another approach taken by some parents is to enroll their children in schools specifically for autistic students, thus voluntarily accepting the segregation of their children in exchange for what they hope will be a less damaging environment than the conventional special-needs classrooms.
The point of this article, just in case anyone is wondering, isn't to bash parents. The vast majority have good intentions. Minority families throughout history have made similar choices, from mixed-race parents teaching their light-complexioned children to pass for white, to Jewish families living as Gentiles to escape pogroms, to low-caste Hindus sending their children away to school in a distant city where no one knows their caste.
What's different this time around is that a large profit-making industry has sprung up, like a fat, squishy, stinking mushroom on a horse turd, peddling an inventory of gloom, despair, and expensive therapies to parents. Of course, there have been other low-life profiteers who found ways to make money from desperate minorities at various times in history, such as those who sold false identity papers at exorbitant prices to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. But such profiteers were widely recognized for what they were, the lowest sort of thieving opportunists. The autism industry's bandits, by contrast, have successfully wrapped themselves in the holy mantle of preserving the public health, while selling parents and educators on the supposed dire necessity of turning us all into Star-Bellied Sneetches. They've even got the balls to solicit corporate donations and to hold "charitable" fund-raising events, without a peep of protest in the mass media. The crap-o-meter, my friends, is pegged.
Let's deconstruct the problem at its most basic level. Schools have failed to provide adequate and inclusive services to autistic students. As a result, large numbers of autistic children are growing up with little or no hope for the future, believing that they are inherently defective and inferior. Many parents are trying to protect their children by keeping them out of inadequate schools and/or by camouflaging their autistic identity, but it's not enough. The root cause of the problem, which is society's irrational prejudice against the autistic population, is not being addressed; and the longer this prejudice is allowed to go unchallenged, the more viciously entrenched it will become, and the uglier will be the discrimination endured by these students when they grow up and attempt to enter the workplace.
It's time to take a stand for what we know is right. It's time to start tearing down the walls of the autistic ghetto.
Unlike in the original school desegregation efforts, we can't expect to get any help from psychologists. Have you noticed anyone doing studies on the emotional harm to autistic children from being labeled as defective and disordered? Hell no, I haven't either.
(Edit, September 2005: I have found one article by a professor of psychiatry on this subject, amazingly enough. But almost all of them are still totally oblivious to the human wreckage left in the wake of their diagnostic regime.)
Just how do we fight the battle, then? One family at a time. If you have a child with an autism spectrum diagnosis, don't allow the school officials to place your child in a segregated classroom. Although they may claim to have your child's best interests at heart, it's really all for their own convenience, because it's much easier than changing the mainstream classrooms to provide a suitable environment for autistic children. Don't let them get away with it. Show up at the school every day bitching loud and long, sue the bastards if you have to, but make sure your child is placed in a healthy, inclusive environment. Your autistic child has as much right as any other student to a decent education that will lead to a productive and satisfying adult life.
Tear the walls down.
"Separate but equal is inherently unequal." United States Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.