Autism in the Public Schools
After losing a freelance to full time position because the company I was working at learned I have Asperger’s syndrome and, as they put it, they had “no intention of accommodating” me, I started substitute teaching for Dallas ISD. I had been a substitute teacher the prvious year, and I was still in the system, so it was easy enough to start back again. Because I live in Richardson, I am restricted, due to travel time, to only a few schools I can reasonably reach. Through some bizarre set of coincidences, I somehow was mostly only able to take special education classes — meaning, I was surrounded by autistic children almost every weekday for several weeks.
This experience was very eye-opening. I saw and interacted with autistic children in elementary, middle, and high school. And I have seen how nobody — not a single special education teacher, not a single teacher’s aide, let alone any of the regular teachers in which some of these students have “inclusion” — has the foggiest idea what to do with these children. This is hardly unique to DISD, of course. The problem lies in the fact that very few people in fact understand autism or what it is. As a result, I have seen teachers and aides try to interact (and discipline) autistic children as though they were simply neurotypical children with behavior problems. But this is exactly the wrong way to think of them. Given what we have learned about autistic people, given what we know about why they behave so differently from neurotypicals, you are bound to fail to teach proper behaviors, let alone give them the rest of the education they need to receive at their schools, if you don’t understand that autistic children are not simply regular children with behavior problems or who are “slow.” But that is how they are treated. As a result, I have seen in the high schools extremely intelligent young men and women who have not received nearly the education they could have received.
At the elementary school where I subbed, there was about a dozen students, most of whom had autism. When they would “misbehave,” they would be threatened with moving colors, etc. that are typically used in the schools. These tactics clearly had no effect whatsoever on their behaviors, as they didn’t mean anything to the children. Yes, there were picture cards for the students, but the use of those picture cards seemed limited at best. Picture cards are necessary for autistic children, but they have to be used constantly and consistently. But more than that, threats actually upset autistic children, shutting them down, pushing them toward having meltdowns. If you want to change an autistic child’s behavior, you have to use logic and reason — and use it repeatedly. Also, if they are doing something to another child, you have to get them to empathize with the other child to get them to stop what they are doing.
For example, one of the children was poking another in the back. The one being poked was just sitting there and taking it (probably having gotten used to her poking him all the time), but he was obviously annoyed, as anyone would be. I got down on the floor and said to her, “Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that? Would you like it if someone poked you like that?” I tried to get her attention, repeated her name, and kept asking the question. After a while, she finally said, “No.” I said, “Well then, you shouldn’t poke him if you wouldn’t like to be poked.” And she stopped. And she never did it again — at least, the day I was there.
I was in that class with the special ed teacher’s aide. During recess, the aide asked me, “How on earth are you reaching these kids?” She had never seen anyone change their behaviors so quickly before. Of course, there’s nothing I was doing that I haven’t learned from simply doing research on autism and some of the behavior modifications used — and, of course, trying them on my autistic son. It is nothing anyone out there couldn’t do or learn about. So I told her what I was doing and why I was doing it. It was a complete revelation to her. I gave a brief explanation of what is happening with children with autism, why they acted as they did, etc., which of course ties back in with how to properly teach autistic children proper behavior.
That same day, toward the end of the day, the same girl got upset and ran to the other side of the room. She threw a tissue box and tried to hide among the pillows in the corner. I went over to her and told her she needed to pick up the tissue box. She of course just withdrew. I had noticed earlier that she liked playing a computer game with a gorilla, so I grabbed a toy gorilla and started talking to her through the gorilla. The gorilla asked her if she wanted to come back to story time and if she would pick up the tissue box. She smiled at me, nodded, and stood up, picked up the tissue box and put it away, and then walked over and sat with the other students and listened to the story. Why did this work? Autistic people are object-oriented, she liked the gorilla game, and I got her to focus on an object she liked and had it talk to her. In other words, I successfully communicated with an autistic child. But few truly understand how to do this.
At the high school I most often substitute teach at, I have been in all three special education classes, which range from classes with students so severely autistic that they are nonverbal and can barely function at all to talkative, intelligent, humorous students who I wonder why they are not in inclusion classes. And there are students who are clearly only in school just to give their parents a break — they won’t be learning anything, and whatever they learn, they won’t be applying outside of school, as they are not going to be holding any sort of job. But those aren’t the students I want to talk about.
The students I want to talk about are those talkative, intelligent, humorous students who are together in a special education class that is designed to teach little more than a handful of practical living skills, but who really ought to be in a regular class, because they are definitely intelligent enough to do the work. Many of these students are in fact probably more intelligent than the vast majority of regular students. Why, then, are they not in regular classes? It is because of their “behavioral problems” that have followed them throughout their school years. Many have been lucky enough to be identified as autistic, so their behavioral problems were sequestered away in the special education classes rather than the behavioral units (more on that later), but as a result, they have also been sequestered away from a real education. And, again, it is all because nobody understands how to properly modify their behaviors. By the time they reach high school, they haven’t been taught how to properly interact with anyone other than other autistic people — and a dozen frustrated teachers. As a result, we have an army of highly intelligent people who have received no education to speak of and thus will not be able to live up to their full potential. The person who could have been the next Newton may be that socially awkward, “slow” young man or woman who talks funny busing your table before you sit down at the restaurant. That is all they are being taught to do, and that is a real shame. And it is all because nobody understands how to raise autistic children to be functioning adults.
But, as troublesome as all of this should be to you, I promise you that things can be far, far worse. I know, because I have seen it.
The most troubling thing I saw was when I was assigned to a middle school behavioral unit. If you know anything at all about the behavior of middle school students, you can only imagine how over-the-top ridiculously bad the behavior of these students had to have been to be put in a behavioral unit. We are talking about repeat offense fighters, kids who take offense at everything and anything and who are convinced that beating the daylights out of people is the solution to every problem. In there was one student who — other than cursing like a sailor at the drop of a hat — quietly did all of his school work and played on the computer. He wanted to be left alone to do what he was doing, but of course none of the other students would allow that to happen. They would harass him, turn off his computer, do anything they could to get him riled up and curse at them. A girl in the class, however, would first harass him until he called her a “bitch,” at which point she would get mad and hit him. She hit him four times before she was taken away (by the other adult in the classroom with me the whole time, since there is supposed to be at least two people in there through the day) to be suspended.
However, there was a time when the other adult had to take three other students away, leaving me with this student and another. This student suddenly came up to me and started talking to me. The first thing I noticed is that he had an odd way of speaking (odd if you’re not autistic) and seemed a bit awkward. It was obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He started complaining about the other kids, and I said that if he didn’t like these kids, why was he doing things to get in the behavioral unit? His answer?
“I’ve been in the behavioral unit since I was in first grade. I was put in it after I bit my teacher. I’ve been in the behavioral unit in first grade and second grade and third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade and now sixth grade.”
“You’ve been in the behavioral unit all this time because you bit a teacher in first grade?”
“Well, no . . .”
Well, of course not. But from what I had been witnessing — and what I would witness in the last hour of the day — convinced me that, in a real sense, he was in fact in behavioral units since first grade because he was in one in first grade.
Here is the probable scenario. This kid was/is an undiagnosed autistic. Maybe Asperger’s, but definitely on the spectrum. And definitely prone to meltdowns. His odd behaviors were probably enough of a turnoff for his fellow students and teachers, but no doubt they considered his meltdowns to be mere temper tantrums. Meltdowns occur when a stressful situation — or series of them — becomes too much. Meltdowns can sometimes become very violent, and many autistics will also engage in self-harm, especially if they are not allowed an outlet for their frustration. It would not surprise me if more than a few people have gotten bitten by an autistic child during a meltdown if the adult was intervening wrong. And if the child is undiagnosed, the adults around him are not perceiving him as an autistic child who needs help (but who won’t get the right kind of help anyway because almost nobody understands how to help them), but a serious behavioral problem. So we get a child who gets easily stressed having a meltdown, a teacher who is stressed dealing with it wrong, and therefore get a bitten teacher and a first grader sent off to the behavioral unit.
Of course, the kind of children we find in the behavioral unit are anything but understanding and kind. They are cruel, bullies, and a certain percent are sociopathic, and autistic children are weird and seem to be the perfect victims. So the autistic children get picked on, the stress results in violent meltdowns, and the child remains in the behavioral unit. Year after year after year. And the problem is never solved, but is in fact worsened by such an environment.
That is the situation this poor child is in. He’s been placed in a never-ending Hell, all because he’s an undiagnosed autistic. His fate? He has been taken away to the mental hospital twice. And based on his conversation with me, he is very, very, very angry.
So after being picked on all day, he was told at the end of the day to go outside and get his backpack. He didn’t want to, but I talked him into it (I was cursed out a few times for my effort). He stepped out to see his papers being blown away, the girl who was being suspended for hitting him all day having apparently dumped out his things. And that’s when the meltdown occurred. He began picking up desks and throwing them. Keep in mind that he’s eleven. All of the desks and chairs ended up in a pile in the middle of the room. It was a slow-motion rage — oddly controlled, as he went out of his way to make sure he never threw a chair or desk in such a way that I would be hit by one. And I was close to him the entire time, trying to talk him back.
I never did talk him back. The bell rang, the teachers told me they would take care of it, and I had to pick up my own children from daycare and school. When I walked away, he was outside the portable, banging his head against the metal side. I glanced back one last time to see a chair flying out of the door.
I mentioned earlier I have a child with autism. He’s seven and in a regular first grade. But we know he has autism, and so does the school. Without a diagnosis of autism, and without parents like us, our child could have that child in 5 years. That is a sad, terrifying, and infuriating thought.
Since that time, I decided to become a full time special education teacher, and decided to go through an alternative certification program to do so. But that is a (nightmarish) story for another time . . .