Who is in charge of providing typical and special needs kids with the tools they need to succeed in life? What are those tools? And what do the schools have to do with providing them?
According to the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) American public schools must provide children with the tools they need to access the general curriculum. In theory, kids with special needs should also receive help in preparing for and taking standardized tests. For children with autism and many other developmental disabilities, though, there's often a whole separate set of expectations that are wholly unrelated to the "general curriculum."
The general curriculum consists of academic classes in math, science, language arts and social studies, along with (sometimes, when budgets allow) "specials" such as music, art, gym, and computers. There are other activities available through most schools (after school clubs, band, theater, athletics, etc.), but these are by no means considered "general curriculum." They're not only optional - they're often available only through try-outs or auditions. Plenty of typical kids either can't or don't take part in these activities.
Nowhere in the curriculum are there expectations that children should make friends, be socially accepted, build advanced athletic skills, play with others during free time, order in a restaurant, fold a shirt, shop for groceries or make a bed. None of our standardized tests require that our students be capable of brushing their hair, hammering a nail, or choosing matching socks. It is perfectly possible for young people to graduate high school with no clue of what it takes to boil an egg, fill out a check or dress appropriately for a job interview. Typically developing children aren't taught "life skills" (bed making, bathroom cleaning, food shopping and the like) or social skills (how to make eye contact, shake hands, use a friendly tone of voice, exchange small talk). In fact, if they lack such skills (and a great many do), they're simply left to flounder and cope with the consequences.
Today's public schools hire an entire second work force, just to support the needs of children with developmental challenges. In theory, their charge is to include these kids as fully as possible in the general curriculum. Yet instead of teaching the general curriculum, many are actually teaching a complete separate curriculum - a curriculum designed to teach children to behave in a socially acceptable manner and to do basic tasks. The schools are spending a fortune on therapists who have no mandate to teach academic content, but whose job is to normalize children socially and to prepare them for minimum wage jobs or sheltered workshops.
Personally, I would love to see the entire school curriculum revamped. I'd like to see all kids learning how to manage money, tools and kitchen implements... dress and behave appropriately in multiple situations... prioritize and manage time. I'd be just fine with cutting down on high level math, science and literature classes for high school students, and assuming that interested and capable kids can move forward in those purely academic areas in a higher education setting. I think all our children need to understand how to plan, budget, and think ahead... care for their bodies, their homes, and their children.
But for the moment, practical skills are simply not part of the general curriculum.
If we are working to have children with autism included in the general curriculum, then, logic would suggest that we should be working on those skills required to access the general curriculum. That is: reading, writing, math, and, depending upon the school, cutting, drawing, molding, singing, running, jumping, and so forth. Collaboration may be expected in certain classes, but it is perfectly possible to complete science projects without a lab partner, or to write a report individually rather than as part of a team.
So which is it? What do we, as a society, value for our children? Are we most concerned with their understanding how to live their day-to-day lives with grace and competence? Or are we most concerned with their ability to grasp academic content and prove their knowledge through standardized testing? Is it possible for us to teach all of our children to manage both of these sets of skills?
In my opinion, it's long past time for Americans to review the purpose of both general and special education - and to adjust programs, services and expectations accordingly.