03/31/2015 12:43 EDT | Updated 05/31/2015 05:59 EDT

The Real Autism Crisis Is in Our Classrooms

Chairs and desks in a classroom
Image Source via Getty Images
Chairs and desks in a classroom

Inclusion is held up as the ideal learning environment, and rightly so. Successful integration is possible, yet it doesn't magically happen when you throw a child with high-functioning autism into a class of 20+ children, cross your fingers and hope for the best. In many cases, though, in schools across the country, this is exactly what is being passed off as inclusion.

Recent allegations of kids being locked inside a room and handcuffed by police sound extreme and rare. However, you don't have to trawl parenting forums for long to see the reality. Every parent, it seems, has a story. Some have entire chapters. Kids penalized for not having neat handwriting or for failing to make eye contact. Young children marked late after the bell, only to be found wandering the playground alone half an hour later. Parents routinely called to collect their children because staff simply don't have the resources or training to deal with them.

My six-year-old has gone an entire day at school hardly eating or drinking a thing, and no one noticed. He's arrived off the bus in freezing temperatures with his coat barely on, in running shoes -- his boots, hat and mittens left behind at school. He's fully verbal. He knows the periodic table by heart and can recite the alphabet in half a dozen languages, yet he cannot always be trusted to communicate his basic needs.

So when he's in their care, I rely on teachers and support staff to make sure my son is safe. Like many parents in my situation, I spend every Monday through Friday worrying and praying that he's OK.

This situation is not OK.

Educators often have little working knowledge of autism or what it looks like in children. Not surprising, really, when you consider the spike in ASD rates in recent years, mainly owing to better diagnostic practices and a widening of the clinical definition.

Boards have largely failed to take action to meet the influx of children with autism entering their classrooms. Special needs support staff have, in the main, faced job cuts or else are spread too thin among several students to be truly effective. Teachers are tasked with creating IEPs (Independent Education Plans) for children whose needs they may not fully understand or recognize.

You wouldn't send a firefighter into a blaze without a hose and an oxygen tank. So why, then, do we expect our teachers and assistants in already overpopulated classes to do a job without the necessary skills and materials? This applies as much to the newly qualified teacher as the teacher with 25 years under her belt.

If we want inclusion and integration to work in real terms; if we want our children to get the education they deserve, then they are not the only ones who need to sit down and learn. It's educators, first and foremost, who need educating.


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