Remember my story about my girl having a couple of seizures last summer? Remember my story about how hard it was for her to go to Mass during the summer? Well, the saga continues to unfold. Continue reading
So this bit of news has been making the rounds the past couple of days among autism and other special-needs parents. It seems that in two unrelated incidents, a police resource officer in a Kentucky grade school put an eight-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl in handcuffs in order to restrain them—cuffing them around their biceps because their small hands would slip through the cuffs. Both students have ADHD, and the girl also had a history of some kind of trauma.
The school was aware of the children’s diagnoses, as was the police officer who cuffed them. Both students had been removed from their classrooms because of disruptive behavior, and when the principal was unable to contain the situations, the officer took over, employing the handcuffs. (Note: watch the video at the top of the article at your own risk. It’s very disturbing.)
According to the report, the girl was especially upset by the situation, to the point of needing psychiatric treatment in a hospital. Understandably, both sets of parents are suing the officer involved.
This is a very sad story, especially in a time when attention has already been focused on police officers abusing their power and mistreating people who live on the margins. These incidents may not rise to the level of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown, but they come pretty darned close.
I don’t want to say much about the incidents—I don’t like stating the obvious or dwelling on people’s stupidity. But I do want to look at the article that described the situation. Actually, not the article (although it does have a couple of really embarrassing typos), but the utterly irresponsible headline that was assigned to it:
Lawsuit: Officer handcuffed mentally disabled kids as punishment.
Disabled? Mentally? What does that even mean? The report only talks about ADHD and some unspecified trauma. It’s not as if the kids had been lobotomized or anything. There’s nothing in the report that indicated the students were “disabled” in the sense that most people understand that term.
It doesn’t take a genius to see how this terminology places a kind of perception filter over the whole story.
“Oh, the kids must have been truly and deeply disturbed.”
“I can understand why the principal let the officer shackle the children.”
“These are mentally disabled kids—it’s not as if they were ‘normal’ kids. I guess it’s okay.”
It may not seem like a huge deal—just a matter of poor wording. But in this time when the Americans with Disabilities Act is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, we don’t need to be going backwards. Remember, it was the ADA that ushered in the era of person-centered language. So we talk about a man with schizophrenia rather than calling him a schizophrenic. We talk about a woman who can’t walk instead of calling her a cripple. And we talk about a child with ADHD rather than calling him mentally disabled. Or at the very worst, we call him a child with a disability.
It shouldn’t be rocket science at this point in our history, and yet here we are. We’re still using hurtful, discriminatory words. Words that justify abuse, fear, and marginalization.
ADHD Hall of Fame.
But that’s not all. Terms like “mentally disabled” give the impression that the kids are slow learners or are academic underachievers. It puts them in a category of “less than,” when there is absolutely no evidence in the article that this is the case. For all we know, these kids could be total freaking geniuses who happen to have ADHD. It’s not uncommon, after all for this combination to occur.
Here, for instance, is a list of some well-known, very successful people who also have ADHD:
Would you call any of them “mentally disabled”?
Words from the Unwise.
It’s possible that the editor who created this headline thought the article would get more views if he or she used a provocative title. Or maybe the editor was trying to allude to the recent police brutality stories. But it was a very poor choice of words. It’s deeply offensive, and it did a huge disservice, both to the story and more important, to the kids.
But hey, I guess we’re making some progress. At least the headline didn’t call the kids retarded.
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?
Yes, I know it’s been a few months. But I’m back now. Believe me, I haven’t run out of things to say!
Anyway, something that happened at school with my oldest girl, and I felt I had to share it.
After years of working with the school, my daughter, a sixth-grader, finally has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that identifies her as being on the autism spectrum. IQ testing puts her just two points shy of gifted/genius, but she has glitches in the way she learns and processes information. She also has attention issues as well as the kind of anxiety that is not uncommon to kids on the spectrum. The world is so “other” for aspies like her, and they tend to be in a state of constant tension when outside of the comfort of home.
All this means that when tests come up in school, my daughter is supposed to be given extra time, and an aide is supposed to be made available to read her the questions and help her stay on task. That’s part of her IEP. It’s documented in paperwork required by the US Department of Education. It’s her legal right.
A Recipe for Failure.
Well, she missed a history test last week because she was out with strep. When she came back to school this Monday, her teacher sent her to the library to take the test. She was pretty confident going in, because she had done a bang-up job on this unit. She even earned a 100% on a major project related to the topic! I can’t tell you how proud she was when she saw that grade.
She bombed the test. Epically.
As soon as I found out, I e-mailed her teacher to investigate. It turns out that a number of things went wrong, which should never have occurred.
First, she was sent to the library—a very busy place filled with distractions—to take the test. Next, she was there all alone. There was no aide to help her. No one checked on her progress or answered any questions she might have had. No one even looked in on her during the hour-long test. And finally, she had to deal with a change in routine. This may not be a big problem for neurotypical kids, but any change like this—especially if it’s linked with something as scary as a major test—can send aspies like her into a tailspin.
In other words, this was a recipe for failure.
Daddy Goes to Battle.
When I asked about this, her teacher said that my girl could retake the test, but that it wouldn’t be given full weight because it was a do-over. The highest grade she could get was a 70. Then, to add insult to injury, the teacher told me that on the day of the test she had read the questions to everyone else in the class and made sure they stayed focused. So not only was my girl denied the accommodations she has a legal right to as a special-needs student, she didn’t even get the same help that her neurotypical peers got!
It took a few hot e-mails from me, but I finally made it clear that this teacher was not complying with my daughter’s IEP, and that my daughter deserved better than a chance at a C. Somewhat reluctantly, the teacher agreed to give her the test again, this time with the chance to earn full credit. I didn’t get an apology from the teacher, mind you. Much as I would have liked one, I knew better than to ask for the moon. I was just happy to have won on this one.
The Thrill of Victory.
Now I know that this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. The teacher messed up, I brought it to her attention—politely but aggressively—and she fixed it. But it’s a battle I should never have had to wage. My daughter has an IEP for a reason, and her teachers are expected to comply with it.
I’m glad I waged this battle, though. It showed me that I need to be more pro-active when it comes to advocating for my kids. It showed me how quickly some teachers will back down when challenged. And best of all, it illustrated the oft-used saying: “You’re the only advocate your child has.”
Not to mention, it felt really, really good to have a victory under my belt!