On the last day of school I had shoved it into a box in the garage because I was so completely traumatized by anything with the word 'school' on it, and the garage is where things go to be forgotten.
It's a good thing I did, because putting some distance between us and the school meant that reading through the file this week only made my heckles go up to 3 instead of 11.
In the cold light of homeschool, the stuff I was reading just seemed... ridiculous. I can't think of another word to describe some of the comments made by people who had known the kids for years and who had assured me that yes, they understood autism.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here's some of the things that have been written or said about my kids during their time at school.... with one small amendment.
I've swapped 'autistic' for 'visually impaired'.
Max has been coping well while using Braille text books, so we feel that it’s no longer necessary for him to keep using Braille. From next term we will only have Braille text books in the classroom for two mornings a week.
Max does not try hard enough to pay attention in class. He would rather stare into space than look at me when I’m teaching, and I constantly have to remind him where to look. He's slow to copy written work from the whiteboard and the class often has to wait for him to finish, which is detrimental to other students.
As for the request to allow Max to use a scribe to write for him, we feel that it would only be rewarding his lack of effort. While we do understand that he's visually impaired, it will be hard to explain to the other students why Max is the only one allowed to opt out of handwriting activities. Perhaps he just needs more opportunity to practice his handwriting at home?
Max gets very upset when things are moved around the classroom or when his assigned seat is changed. He also lashes out when other students bump into him accidentally. It takes a long time to shift between tasks and to resettle himself, this is particularly noticeable when moving between classrooms and I often have to tell him to hurry up.
Max is clearly a capable student but isn't applying himself consistently. He contributes well when allowed to give his answers verbally, but isn't trying hard enough to produce written work. At times he is very non-compliant - for example, when the rest of the class move to the mat, he will ignore them and stay at his desk or move to the wrong area of the room.
Max needs to understand that visually impaired or not, participating in sport is not optional. He often stands at the periphery and doesn't pay attention to demonstrations. His catching skills in particular need considerable work.
Okay, so Max doesn't have a visual impairment and hopefully nobody would ever say these things about a kid who does. Why then is it okay to say them about autism? His brain struggles with sensory input, executive planning, language delays, social comprehension and other challenges which are just as real despite being less visible.
Why do autistic kids get asked to try harder?
It's true that their needs are not always as clear-cut as other special needs might be, and as a result supports can be trickier to figure out and implement. But that doesn't make them any less necessary than providing a wheelchair or using sign language. The kids who need these supports aren't trying to opt out or take the easy route - they're trying to stay afloat.
The bottom line
Here's my wish-list of things I hope every teacher understands about supporting autistic kids in their classroom:
- Functioning well with supports in place is not a sign to reduce or remove the supports
- Not all kids pay attention by looking at you
- Dyspraxia is common and can make handwriting difficult and even painful for some
- Using a scribe is not a cop-out
- Children should never be made to feel lazy for needing supports
- If classmates complain that supports are unfair, you're doing it wrong
- Having motor coordination challenges does not mean you are bad at sport
- Being resistant to change is not a character fault
- Kids who are slow to transition are going as fast as they can
- Excelling in one skill area doesn't preclude you from struggling in another
- The amount of work produced is not always a product of the amount of effort put in
- Misunderstanding instructions is not non-compliance
- Being scared is not opting out
Image courtesy Flickr user Calotype46
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