A Niche That Shouldn't Be Necessary
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.