Our public schools have a hard time dealing with autistic students mainstreamed into the general education classroom. I know this because I have a 12-year-old autistic son in sixth grade, and my wife and I have been battling his school almost every year, with almost every teacher, since he started school.
The problem isn’t with the particular school he’s in. The problem is with all of our public schools. Our teachers have not been trained to support autistic children. They usually do not understand much about them, and, as a result, the teacher can often be dismissive or make demands of him that he cannot possibly fulfill.
For example, my son once had a special education teacher’s aide, whose job it was to support him in the classroom, actually pull him out of class to yell at him for being “disrespectful” because he would not look her in the eye when she was talking to him. Even people who know next to nothing about autism know that we (yes, I am autistic as well) have a very difficult time looking people in the eye when they’re talking to us.
Although odds are that any given teacher is going to have a child with autism in his or her classroom (diagnosed or undiagnosed), there is no mandatory training for how to work with autistic children. As a result, the child who is looking around all the time, who seems disrespectful because he can not look you in the eye and because he is blunt, who always seems annoyed, who is anxious and impatient, who may seem bullheaded and argumentative , and who seems to know a lot about certain things (to the point of becoming annoying) but has difficulties with other academic areas, particularly standardized testing, is often seen as a problem rather than a kid with a learning difference.
Note that this is how we as autistic people are perceived by others. Ask us what’s going on, and we’ll give you a very different story.
Teachers and administrators need to be trained to understand autism so they can better serve their autistic students. Even though Texas regulations state that, as per the autism supplement, schools are supposed to provide teachers and paraprofessionals with training so they know how to use strategies to serve autistic children, such training is not typically available.
Until this past weekend, when her district sent out information a voluntary autism training, my wife, who is an elementary school teacher, had come across only one general training on autism – designed primarily to explain what autism is. And it was not required, nor did it even count toward her training hours. As a result, there were three people in the course with her. What good is training that nobody will take?
Many of our special education teachers are doing what they can to help autistic students. The speech therapy that’s being provided is vital to helping autistic children communicate better with others. However, there is more that can be done, especially by the general education teachers.
One thing that could help is for teachers to talk to their classes about autism. This of course would mean they would have to learn something about it.
We have asked our son’s teachers to tell their class that he has autism and to let him talk about it. They refused, saying “everybody has differences.” That kind of dismissive attitude plays down the real cognitive differences between autistic people and everyone else, including our struggles in a social world that can be outright hostile to us.
The education system is simply not designed to accommodate neurodivergent students in any way. But many of the things we need are really quite simple.
· Listen to us about what we need.
· Give us time to answer you if you ask a question. It can take a while for us to process things.
· Try to relate what you’re teaching us to our interests to the degree possible. Fractions did not interest me, and I did not understand them, until I took chemistry, which I liked. Relate things to sharks, and my son will pay attention.
· Learn something about autism, the autistic community and autistic culture – from a real autism expert. That is, someone who is autistic.
Do more than just wear your autism awareness shirt. And let autistic children be themselves.
Troy Camplin is a gallery attendant at the Dallas Museum of Art who has autism and is raising an autistic son. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
Find the full opinion section here. Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.