My son has high functioning autism. His neurologist gave him the diagnosis of Asperger’s when he was five, because during the exam, he took my bottle of water, turned it on its side, and began reading the small print on the label. She said that he had Asperger’s, because he was smart.
But he wasn’t and isn’t a typical Asperger’s kid. Kids with Aspergers tend to be highly verbal. They’ll talk your ears off about trains or dinosaurs or some other obsession de jour. Ian’s speech is slow, but his spatial and decoding skills are off the charts. Some say that kids like Ian are a whole different branch of autism, called hyperlexia, but the research on hyperlexia is very weak. In fact, the research on all high functioning forms of autism is so weak that they’ve gotten rid of the Asperger’s label all together now. Now, it’s all just autism.
Thanks to reforms in the 1970s, the public school system is obligated to educate my son and all the kids with the many varients of autism. With the rise in autism rates, this has become a very expensive proposition. One in 35 boys in New Jersey has an autistic spectrum disorder. The burden has fallen on local districts to cover these expenses, because the federal government never provided the promised funding for special education. With the price for autistic education as much as $100,000 per child, this creates for very unhappy local politics. At our local special education PTA, the parents practice talking points for when a neighbor accuses them of stealing their children’s education money.
Local schools do not have the resources to teach kids with severe cognitive and behavior problems. Those kids are sent to private schools around the state. The quality of education that those children receive is highly dependent on the financial resources of the town and the legal representation of those parents. Here in New Jersey, there is a move to establish county-wide autism schools to reduce the flow of public money to private schools. They are building a school like that just down the road from me. Based on parental feedback about other country-run autism services, I’m not optimistic about the quality of this school. This school will be for parents who can’t afford good lawyers.
While local schools simply cannot provide the resources for kids with middle and low functioning autism, they have established classrooms for higher functioning autism. Theoretically, these classrooms can target autism’s special brand of needs – poor attention, need for repetition and routine, and language deficits. A staff person trained in ABA therapy can help them with OCD and other behavior problems. They can be mainstreamed for strengths and have individual instruction in their weak areas.
Parents like these local classrooms, because their kids can remain in the community and not be shipped miles away. The kids can interact with typical kids on the playground. They say it is better to be the lowest functioning kid in a typical school, than the highest functioning kid in an autism school.
School districts like these classrooms, because it keeps the town money in the town and because it’s much cheaper than private schools.
The problem with these classrooms is size. There aren’t very many kids with high functioning autism in any town. Also, there is a very high level of variation within the broad category of high functioning autism. Right now, Ian, who does a 5th grade math curriculum, is in a classroom with kids who are struggling with basic math facts. There are only four other kids in the class. Teachers and aides vastly outnumber the kids in the room.
There is also no consensus about the emphasis of these classrooms. Ian’s old transition classroom pushed academics. He worked on math worksheets and reading workbooks from 9 to 3 every day. His new school puts the emphasis on social skills and blending with the mainstream kids. There is little oversight and no standards.
Autism education is in its infancy. Sadly, costs, rather than research, are driving this bus. I would like to see somebody do a “best practices” study of these classrooms for HFA. What is best AND most efficient way to educate a child with HFA?
- Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
- The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed
- NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity