The educational world has a tough time with providing appropriate educational supports for individual kids. And that's understandable: it's a whole lot easier to create an "autism classroom" than it is to meet the needs of individual children one at a time. And so, in many districts, classrooms are created around an understanding of what it means to be autistic. Generally speaking, it's assumed that kids in that classroom will have these characteristics:
- Can't function without rigid structure.
- Can't focus if there are any visual distractions in the room.
- Is easily overwhelmed by any kind of loud noise or flickering light.
- Is prone to tantrums and "meltdowns" when routines are changed.
- Has focused and perseverative interests, and has a very hard time focusing on anything outside that interest.
- Has little or no ability to speak - or, if he/she does speak, tends to perseverate on a topic of special interest.
- Requires extensive preparation for any new activity, place or expectation.
- Has little or no empathy or imagination.
- Has a talent for mathematics.
- Loves and is highly skilled in digital technology.
- Tends to see details clearly and big picture not at all.
- Rarely if ever expresses affection or love.
All of these statement are used to explain and describe autism, so that teachers, instructors and families can create an appropriate environment for learning and play.
Do any of these descriptors reflect the real person with autism in your life?
Our son, Tom, is nearly fifteen. According to the present criteria, he is accurately diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) - an autism spectrum disorder. Certainly, he has significant speech and language delays, and some real learning issues.
But at this point in his life, only ONE of these descriptors is accurate: he does tend to see the trees rather than the forest.
He has no more sensory dysfunction than many typical people. He's a wonderful and creative writer and storyteller, and he has a large vocabulary. He can talk a mile a minute when he's comfortable and relaxed. He's dreadful at math and has very little interest in computers. He can focus on anything that interests him, regardless of fluttering posters or loud surroundings. He's delighted to experience new things, provided they sound like fun. And he's one of the most sensitive, loving people I know.
Kind and caring teachers and others gladly create a setting for him that fits all the criteria I've listed above. But despite his diagnosis, Tom doesn't need those things.
Removing posters, putting in incandescent lights, avoiding changes in routine and keeping him away from loud noise would be like offering a child with with cerebral palsy a wheelchair, even if he's fully capable of walking. Yes, many people with the disorder DO need the supports - but this individual person doesn't. When you provide unnecessary supports, you undermine independence, lower expectations, and - all unintentionally - provide a poor educational experience.
That's not to say Tom doesn't need supports. He sure does.
In a world in which rapid language processing is a key to success, he can take a full minute to absorb a question, find an answer, put the answer into words, and speak up. In a typical classroom, he'd be too late every time. In a world in which facile, highly verbal social interaction is a key to success, Tom is often tongue-tied. That means that making friends or even having a casual chat with a stranger is still beyond him. In a world that demands instant calculation of time, money, speed and percentage, Tom just doesn't have the skills.
Yes, he's accurately diagnosed on the autism spectrum, at least for now (until new diagnostic criteria are implemented). And yes, there are real and significant issues that make it impossible for our son to function well in a high school classroom filled with 23 of his same-aged peers. But while all this is true, the "autism classroom" is all wrong for him.
Does your child with autism fit neatly into the "autism classroom?" If not, how have you worked with your school to develop a setting that works well for her or him?
More About Autism and Education
- Mainstreaming and Autism
- Inclusion Classes and Autism Education
- Educational Options for Children with Autism
- IEP (Individualized Educational Program)