When Near-Failure Is an Option

A couple of days ago, I wrote about an episode at my daughter’s school where she was given the short end of the stick when it came time to make up a test she had missed. I’ve thought about it some more, and I realize that this little episode exposes a more general weakness in the way schools deal with high-functioning kids on the autism spectrum.

Looks Are Deceiving.

Kids like my girl look “normal.” They don’t bang their heads against the wall—at least not usually in public. They have average or above-average verbal skills. They are bright and sweet and innocent. They try hard to fly under the radar so that they won’t attract attention. But coping mechanisms like these often hide serious learning glitches and emotional imbalance.

As far as the school is concerned, there’s no need to worry about these kids. Not unless their parents push hard to get their kids special-ed services. And then, the most they are willing to do is place kids like these in “inclusion” classrooms—standard classrooms that are staffed with a teacher and an aide who floats around the room helping kids who need it. But that’s about as far as they go. No different approach to teaching kids with different brains. No sense of what it is that the kid needs. Just an obligation to pound the information into his or her head so that he or she can spit it out when it comes time for standardized testing. If the kid still isn’t doing well, despite the inclusion class, it’s his or her problem, not the school’s.

Hoop after Hoop after Hoop.

You see, schools consider inclusion to be a great, magnanimous gift they are bestowing upon these kids. So parents are made to feel greedy if they dare ask for anything else, like access to a guidance counselor or extra help in a challenging subject. Even if their child clearly needs it.

This begins very early on in the process. You have to jump through all kinds of hoops just to get an IEP for your child in the first place. In most cases, you literally have to wait for a child to fail before a school will do anything. As long as a student—no matter how smart—is pulling at least a D average in core classes, there is no need to do anything. He or she is “meeting standards.”

Never mind how hard it is for that kid to complete homework after working so hard to keep it together at school. Never mind how anxious, fearful, or even depressed that kid is becoming because of the stressful environment. Never mind that this kid is really, really bright and could tear the place up if given the chance. Nope. He has to fail first. And by the time that happens, so much ground has been lost—educationally, socially, and emotionally—that it’s a long, hard climb to get back on top of things.

“Are You Serious?”

And then come the humiliating meetings parents have with school administrators as they try to advocate for their children. There are the not-too-subtle insinuations that if you were a better parent, your child wouldn’t be failing. “All you have to do is use more charts and folders to keep her organized.” “Are you giving him consequences when he doesn’t do his homework?” “Well, if you didn’t have so many kids. . .”

There’s the attempt to blame the student. “She doesn’t need support. She’s just lazy.” “He simply needs to apply himself more.” “If he’d just do his homework, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

There’s the attempt to discount or diminish the situation. “I see that you have a diagnosis from a psychologist. Well, private practitioners tend to exaggerate things to keep you coming back. They’re more interested in their bottom line than anything else.” “It’s just a phase. My kids went through a tough patch as well. I’m sure he’ll pull out of it.” “Are you sure your child has autism? She seems fine to me.”

And then there’s this classic line: “Some kids just aren’t cut out for school.”

As If. . .

These are all things we’ve been told in parent-teacher conferences and at IEP meetings. As if we aren’t trying to teach our kids discipline and responsibility. As if we just want to milk the system for everything we can get out of it. As if we enjoy having to explain our kids’ challenges over and over again. As if we were under the spell of some Svengali-like psychologist who is milking us for every dollar we have.

But the reality is that no parent wants to go through any of this. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt a pit in my stomach when preparing for an IEP meeting or a parent-teacher conference. It’s not the exhilaration that I’ll be getting something special for my precious little child. It’s the dread of having to rehearse, yet again, the symptoms and the challenges that my kid faces. It’s the sober realization that I am not only responsible for educating my children. I’m also responsible for educating their educators so that they can see the way ASD affects my kids—and the way their teaching methods help or hurt them.

What disturbs me the most is that my kids are smart. They’re talented. They’re perceptive and creative and curious in their own way. But their teachers can’t see it because they’re hidebound by a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Their main goal is to get the kids ready for state-mandated standardized testing. So as long as they can get the right data into their kids’ brains—as long as their kids can regurgitate that data on a test—they have discharged their duties. And so any child whose brain is wired differently is left to flounder.

Just so long as he doesn’t fail, all is well. After all, isn’t that what inclusion classes are for? To keep on teaching him the same way—no matter how bad the results have been all along?

8 thoughts on “When Near-Failure Is an Option

  1. Well said Leo! I love your articles! I dred the IEP meetings. The last one I had in Florida I cried when all 6 middle school teachers berated my child for 30 minutes before I got to say anything. It would seem with Autism on the rise more teachers would be trained to deal with these issues. It is sad they have no idea what to do and no programs for these intelligent yet socially challenged children. The school Daniel goes to this year was started by a mom who didn’t like her choices for her son with Aspergers. I love these blogs to listen to other parents and gather advice. It is so nice to hear how other people cope, without trying to explain what it’s like to people, friends and even family who have no idea what we go through. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you so much for being supportive and willing to fight for your daughter! I am hoping that understanding and accommodation for others on the spectrum grows.

  3. My daughter’s middle school science teacher said, “She will never make it in the real world”. She is 27 now, has two master’s degrees from Georgia Tech, has traveled the world successfully, has a boyfriend, and a job! She is a wonderful, caring, daughter. Hang in there parents! Keep believing in and fighting for your precious children 🙂

  4. I am very proud of what you are doing for my grandchildren! Remember what I told you when you got married, “there will be good and difficult days and the difficult days will build character.” You are doing what is required in this weirdly wired society in which we live. Keep at it and never back off. Love you guys, Dad

  5. I’m pretty sure that “the system” will never do much beyond mediocre for most people, let alone people who find themselves near the outer edges of giftings (whether “high” or “low”), behaviors, “normal” circumstances. I encourage you to keep advocating for your kids, and when its time, theirs. Both you and they are being shaped by this walk you are on together, and I expect what you are doing much more for them in terms of character, support, commitment and formation than many kids will have. Keep fighting that good fight – likely it will impact more people more deeply than you would think, including those who serve the system. Society needs people who will push for what is right and challenge the inertia of institutions.

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