Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Niche That Shouldn't Be Necessary

I live near a city that has a school specifically for children "with Asperger's Disorder." It is a charter school, paid for with public funds. There is a long waiting list for admission. Many parents are grateful for the opportunity to enroll their child in a school where the child will no longer be bullied, treated as a freak because of his or her differences, or placed in classrooms with teachers who know nothing about the developmental needs of autistic children.

The same scene is being played out in many cities. As children return to school after their summer vacation, more of them are starting the school year in autism-specific schools. Parents who are desperate for a better educational environment for their children are often the ones who take the lead in creating these new schools, as Valerie Paradiz did when she founded the ASPIE School in New York.

Clearly, these schools are filling a niche, compensating to some extent for the failings of the public school system. They protect autistic children from the bullying, social rejection, misunderstandings, and exclusion that are so common in mainstream school environments.

But it's a niche that shouldn't be necessary.

A separate system of publicly funded schools for a rejected and bullied minority group is nothing new; after all, schoolchildren in the United States were segregated by race throughout most of the nation's history. It wasn't just whites who supported segregation. There were many black parents who preferred to enroll their children in separate schools, believing that their children would never be accepted by the majority population and that any attempt to integrate the schools would place their children at risk of harm.

The arguments in favor of autism-specific schools are the same ones that were set forth, for many years, in defense of racial segregation. It was widely believed that black children learned best in segregated schools with others of their kind, that they would inevitably be bullied and mistreated if they attended schools with whites, and that the teachers in predominantly white schools would not understand their cultural differences.

Those who had the courage to integrate the public schools, such as the Little Rock Nine and their families, had to face vicious abuse every day. Others in the black community were content to keep their children in the segregated schools, declaring that integration was an impossible effort and that black children would never be accepted as equals. But after many years of struggle, our society came to understand that it was indeed possible to achieve racial integration in the schools and that everyone was better off as a result of it. Black children benefited greatly from integration because they no longer had to suffer the stigma and emotional harm of being treated as an inferior underclass.

Having learned these painful lessons from history, we ought to know better than to build a new system of separate-and-unequal schools for the autistic population, which would in effect create a new racial underclass. Until recently, very few of the students who would have met today's broad criteria for Asperger's (and other autism spectrum categories) attended segregated schools. We know for a fact that autistic students can succeed in mainstream schools because generations of autistics have done so.

Yes, there was quite a lot of bullying of "nerds" in the schools, and yes, many teachers did not understand the needs of such students. I don't dispute that these were, and continue to be, serious problems that need to be addressed. But the way to deal with them is not to segregate the victims and stigmatize them as mentally disordered, but to require our public schools to provide a genuinely inclusive environment for all students. Bullying should never be tolerated, teachers should be required to have significant experience with autism and other developmental differences in order to get a teaching license, and classroom accommodations should be provided as a routine matter for all students who need them.

Recommended reading on this subject: Estée's recent post What Do We Mean by Inclusive Education, which considers a variety of perspectives on inclusive schooling as it is practiced around the world.



  • That is assuming of course that everyone thinks that public schools are the ideal to strive for. I prefer homeschooling to any kind of special charter schools. I was severely bullied in school to the point where I became seriously depressed as a child. It is not something that can be as easily compared to a racial issue. Often the person with AS is different from people in their own families - unlike a child from a minority group who could find support from their family and friends and not learn to judge themselves by other people's yardsticks. Also it is not just the bullying element that is problematic for AS kids - but the sensory unfriendly environment and most of all the dumbed down curriculum that often deters students from wanting to learn.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:36 PM  

  • On Tuesday, David's middle school autistic support staff held an all-inclusive Diversity Lessonay to educate everyone about differences among the student population, neurological differences and otherwise. It was to teach the NT kids tolerance and other strategies for interacting with kids like my David, who can have difficult moments in school that some kids might find annoying at times and scary at other times.

    This was the note I got back from the teacher after the diversity lesson:

    "Hi, just wanted to update you on the diversity lesson Tuesday and the talk I did with the Green Team kids. What a fabulous group of students on that team!!! They are so receptive, and asked a lot of great questions. I gave them strategies and tips for working with David, and they seem so enthusiastic!"

    The thing is, I believe that in segregated schools, NT kids are not given enough tools, information, and credit for being able to navigate in diverse population of students. It is the administration that decides on behalf of the NT population that it won't work, and it is the administration that can decide that it will work. NT students look to the teachers for guidance on how to react to differences in others, and if the teachers and administrators set the right tone diversity can happen.

    I've found that NT kids often hide behind two different coping strategies, neither of which are healthy. The first is to become helpless with deer-in-the-headlights kind of a stance when he's doing something, and the other is to scold him as you would do a much younger, pesty sibling, tolerating less from them than you would of children you consider to be your peers, even though David is in fact their peer.

    Those who become helpless look to the teachers to step in and say something because they are afraid that to tell him to stop is the same as being a bigot (it is not). Those who look down on him and scold him don't believe he belongs among them (not true). So there has to be a balance between being so "tolerant" that there is no feedback and interaction at all, and so intolerant that the child is an anathema no matter what he does.

    By Anonymous autiemom, at 11:03 AM  

  • The reality is that staff in mainstream schools is not trained and does not understand ASDs, and that the environment itself is not conducive to learning.

    By Blogger Gamedude & Tibetan Star, at 12:55 PM  

  • Anonymous: I agree that homeschooling can be good for some autistic students. Montessori and other small private schools where the kids learn at their own pace can be good, too. I am not making the assumption that public schools are ideal; I'm just saying that as long as they exist (which probably will be for many more years) they shouldn't be segregated.

    Autiemom: Yes, accurate information is the key to ending prejudice. Diversity lessons in schools (and workplaces too) should include facts about neurological differences. It sounds like David has a great support staff!

    By Blogger abfh, at 12:55 PM  

  • Hi again,

    "Lessonay" was originally "Day" changed to "Lesson" but I forgot to take off the "ay."

    I got an update from the teacher, Miss H, today about the day of the Diversity Lesson and then the aftermath of it.

    She said some of the NT kids are actually extremely eager to work with David, volunteering to be his study buddy during group projects. One kid raised his hand and said, "I would like to know David's strengths."

    Yes. :)

    David worked in a group project in science and became such a part of the group today that the aide backed away and "disappeared" because he didn't need any assistance. David got up in front of the class and presented some of the work from the group.

    As he was going up in front of the class, he stroked the cheek of another student to say "I like you." The other student didn't mind...now. Because the other students understand, now, that David has ways of saying "I like you" that are different, and it's okay.

    He is being unfreakified by the active efforts of all the staff in this school, and I'm kind of having an out-of-body experience about this.

    I just hope and pray that things continue to go well for David. The only sad thing is that all of these things weren't happening seven years ago when he was in kindergarten. By now he might have had tons of friends, or at least groups of kids in school he could relate to and hang out with on more of an acquaintence level.

    On the other hand, David had more severe behavioral issues up until about 4th grade, and I don't think any regular ed environment would have been able to handle it.

    So while I'm not saying there is never a time for a specialized placement, I'm also saying that a lot more inclusion could be taking place across the country in public schools with the right attitidues and the right training.

    David seems like somewhat of an autism ambassador at his middle school. They are seeing things with David that are brand new to everyone, and this is opening up a lot of eyes and forcing people to (excuse the cliche) think outside the box.

    By Anonymous autiemom, at 1:16 PM  

  • If I had a child, and whether or not that child were autistic or not, I would not want that child educated in a current mainstream school in the UK.

    I think the current education system is a system that socialises children into a norm that autistic or not I can never agree with. It is a perfect system of bad education in my opinion, competition, league tables, devil take the hindmost and incredible pressures on teachers in an underfunded system.

    I did fine in my primary school, but the secondary system was and now is even more flawed beyond belief,I am not sure you can patch it up with all this inclusion PC nonsence, you have got to start from the ground up, and that means starting with the teachers. Education has for too long been a political battleground, but even so teacher education is where it all starts.

    Ironic isn't it that I am now studying at the School of Education in Birmingham :)

    Anyway if you want to read my position on inclusion, you had better read my paper on the AWARES site.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 2:08 PM  

  • All of our children are in public schools. We have 5 in the Autism Spectrum and all are inclusioned. We have never had a problem with bullying. Our one daughter with Asperger's is thriving in Middle School. She has found her niche and similar children to hang with. Acceptance cannot happen with segregation, I believe.

    By Blogger Mom26children, at 3:30 PM  

  • Yeah well it is high school where the bullying starts, It might be thirty years and more ago but I remember it well enough.

    As for dumbed down curriculum any curriculum anywhere was dumbed down according to my paradigms, I argued with the teachers that they were wrong, obviosly that is an enduring characteristic of mine, I was not and am not an easy person to teach :)

    Anyway as high school proceeded I progressively screwed up more and more, until I got to Uni and screwed up again. Like I said, primary school was a dream compared to what followed after.

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 5:01 PM  

  • Larry, If you remove the mercury, you might stop screwing up.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 6:22 PM  

  • Fore Sam,

    If you removed your brain, you'd immediately gain 10 IQ points.

    By Anonymous anonimouse, at 6:39 PM  

  • anonymouse: "Fore Sam,

    If you removed your brain, you'd immediately gain 10 IQ points."

    Fuck... THAT many?????

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:10 PM  

  • See...

    Larry knows it far better than FS will ever do... cos Larry's a genious and FS is a piece of elephant shite!


    HYOWJ difference! :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:12 PM  

  • Isn't there a way to filter out comments from Fore Sam? Everytime there's a good discussion going it devolves into this petty nonsense.

    Now for my own contribution to this petty nonsense:

    Forsam, perhaps if you chelated yourself, you would cease to have these perseverative, repetitive, stereotyped thought patterns on a narrow range of topics (one).

    By Anonymous autiemom, at 10:21 PM  

  • Oh geez. I have so much to say on this subject that I wouldn't be able to stick it here.

    I so agree with you on everything that you've said. We've fought like hell to keep our kid in the mainstream classroom--even going so far as hiring attorneys and going to legal mediation over it (didn't get my name Attila the Mom for nothing!).

    It's been a mixed blessing. There is some truth for us in Estee's posting.

    Too much to be shared in commments, and you know my reluctance about posting specifics about my Little Guy.

    You've brought up an important issue. Gonna have to rethink a few things on my end. :-)

    By Blogger Attila The Mom, at 1:40 AM  

  • I agree with the first comment from anonymous and with laurentious rex, on this subject.

    Primary and middle schools in England may accomodate children with ASD with special needs intervention and extra provision, but the teachers do not have the resources, skills, or experience of ASD that comes from years of training and education in special educational needs teaching.

    Also the teacher/pupil ratio is poor, and most mainstream schools are already struggling to cope with classes of 25 to 30 children per teacher.

    While children at this age are less aware of other children that are 'different', this can be seen as acceptance and undertanding.
    Children with ASD at the age of 6 years are being physically held/restrained and made to sit on an X marked on the classroom floor in order for teachers to 'keep control' and minimise class disruption.
    The X on the floor is the begining of segregation, and children are asking their parents why they are the only ones who have to sit on the X.
    Children can be cruel and bullying is rife in comprehensive schools.
    Non autistic children have been driven to suicide through bullying.
    Teachers, are not, or cannot do anything affective to combat this bullying.
    This is where it all goes wrong for many children/teenagers with ASD.
    After struggling through years at primary and middle schools then after entering comprehensive school, many children are bullied, feel isolated/alienated and cannot cope, emotionally.
    When the educational system has failed them, and probably caused some amount of emotional damage, it is finally agreed that a special needs or autism specific school would be more beneficial.

    This is a bit like 'shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted'.
    Who knows what emotional damage has been done to these children who would have gained huge benefits from being placed in special needs schools from the start.

    By Blogger Jonsmum, at 8:21 AM  

  • Jonsmum: That X on the floor sounds horrible. I agree that placing a child in a special needs school from the start wouldn't be nearly as bad as many years of being treated like that, bullied by classmates, and then put into a special needs school anyway.

    Schools (worldwide) need more funding, better training for the teachers, and strong anti-bullying policies.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:35 PM  

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