Some say that placing children with special needs in separate classes is segregation and unnecessary separation. Based on two recent examples, I’m not so sure. If they get the attention they need, and don’t require too much time of the one teacher responsible for twenty, maybe that’s the best and safest way for all to learn.
Autism has always been around. However, either due to better diagnoses, or environmental influences, there are more cases of autism now than ever before. Because of this, schools are taking a closer look at students who are autistic and have tried to decide the best way to provide an education for them, as well as their classmates.
Until recently, I wasn’t quite sure if all schools were like American schools when it came to how they place and assist autistic children in classrooms. In recent years, schools in the United States, and I’ve now also found out in England, as well, have started to mainstream autistic children into regular classrooms as much as possible. I think this is a good idea, for the most part. However, sometimes, this can backfire, big time.
A friend of mine, who lives in England, relayed to me a story about her five year-old son starting school. Like most children, he had the expectation that every other child is just like him. Why not? Most kids will smile at you, play with you, and are friendly right off the bat. However, it never occurred to this child’s mother to tell her son that there may be children in his class that look just like him, and act just like him for the most part, but sometimes – they may need extra help, or they may not always act like he does.
Maybe sometimes they will get frustrated more easily, or they may cry and he may not understand why. And maybe, sometimes, there will be children that out-of-the-blue, although rare, may decide that they want to take out their frustration on him.
That’s exactly what happened on his fourth day of school this year. Another little boy decided to pummel my friend’s son to the ground in school. Thankfully, the boys were separated and no one was physically hurt. However, if you were a five year-old and had a classmate wallop you upside the head and knock you to the ground for no reason, with force, and intention, you would probably be pretty emotionally traumatized by it, and you definitely wouldn’t understand why.
The boy that did the pouncing is autistic. I’m not saying that he is typical of all autistic children, but there are children, like him, who do need more attention than one teacher in the classroom, spreading her attention thin over 20 – 30 students, can give. (And yes, I also understand that a child who is not autistic can also act out and become violent as well. Of course this is not something isolated to autistic children.)
But while some people may think that I’m generalizing, I also question if it is right to broadly generalize that all autistic children should be “mainstreamed” into the classrooms where there is typically one teacher per 20 or more students. I don’t think it’s fair to the child that needs special help; and I don’t think it’s fair to the other students in the same class because those three or four children are taking time and attention away from them in school, causing distractions, and in this case, causing a problem. Not all autistic children that are placed in regular classrooms are given aids. It’s not an automatic thing.
I know school budgets are tight. I know that many districts can not afford the cost of aids for many of these children. But what is the cost of NOT doing that? Will the children with autism that need additional supervision and instruction get less of an education as a result? What about the students that do not need extra help, but now have to share the same classrooms with children that monopolize the teacher’s time with their behavioral issues? Are these students getting the time with the teacher that they need?
I’m not proposing across the board segregation. But I am proposing closer evaluation of some students who have special needs and consider placing them in classrooms where they can get the attention and support they need so they can safely and effectively learn in school, and others can, too.
I’ll give you another example of mainstreaming gone wrong. Another woman I know was volunteering to help with a first grade activity. All of the first grade classes were participating, including, those children who were autistic. Some children had aids with them; some did not.
The woman was volunteering to lead a simple science experiment, consisting of setting up trays of water with a mild soap solution in them and some paint, so the children could make bubble paintings. She was told she needed to set up the trays and give activity instructions to the children in small groups. The groups changed tables and went from activity to activity.
She was never told that there were some special needs children in the groups that could require extra supervision. She knew that there were aids in the room, but thought that if a child was in the group without an aid, they did not require any extra watching over. So this woman had the expectation that if she clearly explained to the six year-olds to blow air through the straw to create bubbles, a few times, that the children, would do as they were told.
What happened was, the aids were busy taking pictures in the classroom and not watching the few children that really did need their help. The volunteer did not know by sight which children needed extra attention. One of the autistic children at the table wound up drinking some of the soapy paint solution as a result. The child was not hurt, but he had a bad taste in his mouth and blue teeth. (Understandably so.) After the parent volunteer realized what happened, she overheard one of the teachers call for the aid to come give the child some water so he could rinse out his mouth.
Should the aid be blamed? No one is perfect. Should the parent be blamed? No. She didn’t know that the child generally did not follow instructions or needed special assistance. Should the parent have been made aware ahead of time that there were autistic children present and she should give certain ones extra attention – yes! Or, perhaps any children that were not able to participate at the expected level of a first grader in this experiment should have been given separate supervised instruction to begin with, for the safety and enjoyment of everyone.
My intention is not to say this because I want to make autistic children feel bad or different in a hurtful way. It’s because, if I were the parent volunteer, I would not want anything to happen to any child. If you aren’t aware of a special need, how can you address it?
Thankfully the soapy solution was not toxic and no one was worse for wear in the end. However, unless that school changes its policy of informing parents and volunteers about the potential situations they may get into as a result of unsupervised special needs children, I don’t think she will be volunteering her time again – which is a shame.
Maybe some autistic children can assimilate into regular classroom environments without assistance; but maybe some can’t. Maybe some need extra help. And maybe, mainstreaming isn’t right for everyone all of the time.