One important thing to remember about autism is that it is called a spectrum disorder for a reason. Like the word ‘normal’ it is as varied as the people who have it. There is a popular saying in the autistic community: ‘if you know an autistic person…you know one person with autism.’ Autism is everything from the non-verbal child who sits staring and rocking…to the Hollywood savant Rain Man…to PanKwake, a 9 year old body with a 3 year old’s impulse control and the wisdom of a septuagenarian…to those so high-functioning that you dismiss their autism as eccentricities because they are billionaire computer moguls. The autistic spectrum is a broad and as elusive as a rainbow.
That makes it especially hard for schools to cater to what in mathematics terms are outliers (at the far end of the Bell Curve). In the one room school houses that dotted the America frontier, the classroom was everyone from six or seven up to early teens with the older children instructing the younger as much as the teacher. If a student was not ‘getting it’ no big deal. The teacher worked as hard as possible to teach the basics…fundamental reading and addition and subtraction. The parents were simply advised that their son/daughter was not good at ‘book learning’ and they sought other options…farming, blacksmith, working on the railroads, sewing. There was a clear recognition that different people have different talents. They would have scoffed at the very idea of ‘standardized tests.’
A hundred years later when I went to school in America, we were segregated into streams (red, white and blue). One was for those who were what was then called…a bit slow. Another was for the ‘normal’ kids. The third was the ‘gifted and talented.’ We would be mixed in our homeroom for a portion of the day. All studying things like science and social studies as well as PE and lunch. But for reading and math our color was together. One teacher taught reading and another math. So while the reds were reading the whites were doing math. The problem with this system was that us kids were pretty smart (even the reds). We figured the whole game out…and as children will do it became fodder for bullying. ‘You’re in the dumb class.’
One good thing about the system though was flexibility. Without the focus upon ‘standardized’ and national curriculum, the teachers got to really know us children. For me, I had some mild form of dyslexia. No matter how hard I or the teachers tried…letters and words did not make sense to me. Sight reading, phonics…it made no difference. Then around ten it just magically clicked. Now we would say that my brain developed, new neural pathways formed. In the space of one grade I went from red (slow) to white (gifted). And I have never stopped reading or learning since…and never plan to.
Fast forward another quarter of a century to my special needs son and they now had ‘special ed’ classes. Unlike my red/slow group these children were deemed more severe and placed in smaller classrooms by themselves. Of course there might not be enough to have a class for every grade so they were grouped by similar age groups: first and second grade, fifth and sixth, that sort of thing. Of course, ideally these children were ‘mainstreamed’ as it was called for those classes that they could manage, i.e. PE and perhaps art or music. The problem was that they carried that label…’special ed.’ And being forced to rejoin the mainstream for such short periods of time really made the bullying even worse than it had been for me. And no one ever ‘graduated’ from special classes to ‘mainstream’ the way I had.
I will be candid here. I am not a person who believes in regrets but if I did…putting my son in school would be one. You see back then my ex-husband, the preacher, and I were homeschooling all four of our children. Like me the older two struggled to read, but when they got (at that magical ten)…watch out. But with this ‘special needs’ child, we just did not feel ‘qualified.’ So we put him into the local school (the others followed shortly afterwards…it was easier than homeschool). But he was always bullied…always the outsider. And I would say to him…I am so sorry. Ironically, the ‘experts’ never managed more than that one room school house could…third or fourth grade reading (about the level of a newspaper) and basic math. It was not a good trade…if I knew now what I know then. Oh wait I do and that is why I home educate his little sister.
Of course, we live across the pond now in the UK and things are different. Over here the options for parents with special needs children are different too. While you still have the term ‘mainstream’ it means something vastly different. If you choose to mainstream your child then they are with their peers for the whole day…well except maybe brief periods of one-on-one. For some children with more severe physical, intellectual or behavioral issues they may be given a ‘teaching assistant’ or one-to-one support to help them manage the classroom. And in the early years…with the right school, right teacher and a great teaching assistant (like my older daughter) then this can work surprisingly well for some children on the autistic spectrum.
But in all my years networking in the special needs community I have never once met a parent who felt that it was working for their older primary or especially secondary student. Let’s be honest…human beings are one of the most vicious animals out there. We are also cannibalistic at heart…we eat the weaker among us…just with bullying. And it is BAD! Broken ribs…suicidal…panic attacks…you name it and I have heard it.
Of course the other option in the UK are special schools. As opposed to the USA where that ‘special ed’ class may be exposed to bullying in the cafeteria or on the playground, in these schools everyone is the same…and different. We looked at the local one for autism for PanKwake, but the problem is…most of these children are at the more severe/non-verbal end of the spectrum. The schools are geared more towards teaching such basic things as picture card communication.
So for someone on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum you see the dilemma…mainstream with bullying or special school that may not be the right fit for their intellectual capacity. Honestly…what is a parent who wants more than just a place to dump their child so they can get a bit of rest, who demands not just good enough but the best possible education and future for their child to do?
Well…I’ll offer one possible solution to that one…tomorrow…