Saturday, February 7, 2009

Upside Down

Education is currently upside down. The value of the goals we hold for students is less that the value of what they can learn, and no matter what we pay into the goals, we cannot get there from here.

Since the reductionist view of education took hold under No Child Left Behind, education has focused almost exclusively on deficits- on what students cannot prove they can do. This has led to a number of unintended consequences. These impact special education and other students who share the below and far below basic categories disproportionately but they impact all of schooling as teachers and administrators are encouraged and even bullied by policies and fiscal constraints that force them to keep their eyes on students' failings and ignore students' strengths.

For example, a student with autism has a curriculum that is focused primarily on language and social skills-- things we as non-autists, notice that they "cannot do."

For reasons we do not fully understand, people with autism develop expressive langauge, both verbal and non-verbal, very differently from those of us without autism. Thus, language and social skills are considered the "core deficits" of autism. It used to be thought, in the fifties through the seventies that this was a form of childhood schizophrenia, induced by the trauma of being rejected by the mother during pregnancy. This has long been abandoned as a theory but has been replaced by other behavioral theories focused on developing behaviors that will help the child pass as normal. More recent neurological studies have shown that the brain of autistic children is unique from ours and that their recognition and processing systems for non-verbal and verbal language may be just quite different. So getting them to pass as one of us helps? Well, it helps mostly us. It helps us feel more comfortable with them.

This is a radically unpopular point of view for a mother of an autistic child to take, I have learned in conversations with friends and professionals. But I have been reading many, many self-reports from autistic people, and hearing from my own daughter now that she is able to use her speech device. My own brother had a sensory integration disorder and his suicide confirmed what I am about to say: even when autists pass as normal, they are always painfully aware that they are different.

A friend of mine has a child with autism who is non-verbal. He is grinding his way through a very limited behavioral curriculum and almost grade level work in math. But, he is a genius with computers. When computers break in the classroom, they turn to this eight year old to reboot the system and get them working.

What if he stated working on computers and mechanical things along with his applied behavioral therapy? Sure, toilet skills are critical, who could argue with that. Especially if you have had the privilege of changing a diaper for a nine year old in a public restroom, you know that is an important skill. But isn't building confidence, joy, a sense of mastery over something, curiosity, interest, and potential future job skills as important?

I have another unpopular theory about this. His teachers don't know how to keep up with him. The system is so dysfunctional that it needs him to be disabled. Because if he were actually better at computers than his teachers, they would have to change the way they teach-- and learn more about computers. What if this funny, brilliant boy spent his day fixing computers, programming computers, doing research on the net? What else could he do? What would we discover about his self regulation, his ability to interact and his behavior if he were allowed to study things of interest, which he was good at instead of being shoehorned into a mold which he will never truly live comfortably in? Could we, for example, tolerate or even encourage stimming instead of trying to extinguish it? Stimming, the hand flapping and noise making which many autists report help them organize and calm themselves, may be essential to the autist feeling comfortable enough to work, think and interact.

Imagine a school-- a whole world-- in which a child with a disability could be more successful and masterful than his or her teacher in certain areas, and where ability, not the disability, were the area of focus. What would that look like for your child?

Could we ever let go of our own fears and prejudices enough to create a world in which these young people are allowed full membership and participation? Could we let them be truly differently abled?

Imagine an IEP goal that read: "The student will be able to use an appropriate stimming method (hand flapping, bouncing, rocking) of choice to focus and calm herself during work sessions."