Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

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Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

Special Schools for “Special” Kids:
If You Build Them, They will Come

By William Stillman

I was recently interviewed by the mother of a son with autism for an autism-specific publication. One of her queries asked me to reflect upon how far we’ve come in meeting the needs of kids with different ways of being. I paused briefly to review my work in this field since 1987 (longer still if you count the couple years I taught school).

I’ve seen the “special ed” classes with those children deemed “higher functioning” who were “mainstreamed” into regular education for a “special,” such as art, music or gym. They never really were included, socially that is—but wasn’t that the point, to encourage acceptance from their typical peers?

I’ve toured state institutions, rural, self-contained communities to which countless “defective” individuals were sent away—sent away from their families and everything familiar to them. Parents were comforted in believing that the “experts” were better equipped than they to manage (that is, raise) their “retarded” sons and daughters from afar and in isolation of their communities.

And most recently, I’ve conducted consultations at “special schools” for those with autism, from kindergarten age to twenty-one-year olds. They are immaculate, well-maintained facilities, usually out in the middle of nowhere and staffed by dedicated, well-intentioned people who want to make a difference in the lives of their students.

I had to answer the interviewer’s question honestly. No, we haven’t made any progress whatsoever. In fact, the pendulum is dangerously close to swaying backwards in time to an era when the segregation observed just within the scope of my professional history was acceptable and condoned.

I am hearing so much about funding to erect still further special schools for “special” children (almost exclusively those with autism). I worry that young parents of children newly-diagnosed think nothing of supporting such efforts. And I anguish that the multi-billion-dollar autism industry is perpetuating the same message that parents of fifty years ago were given: separate is more efficient…effective…better. It boggles my mind. Not just because all the new brick-and-mortar facilities, the special schools, are technically unlawful according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); but because few parents are questioning the wisdom of the social ostracism to which they are contributing.

Yes, yes, I’m aware that oftentimes parents feel they have no other alternative other than to special school, home school, cyber school. I know that people are weary of battling unyielding school districts. I “get” that kids with autism are routinely victimized, verbally and physically abused by peers and teachers in ways that are inconceivable in this day and age. But show me where segregation has been proven to be a good thing.

There is extraordinary danger in ignoring our past. There is also a danger in disbelieving that were are not caught up in the midst of a human rights movement every bit as viable and worthy as the advances achieved by women’s rights, civil rights, or gay rights activists.

It is not okay that millions of dollars are being funneled into establishing sparkling-new, attractively-equipped and professionally-staffed special schools. It’s not okay that we abstain our local school districts of the responsibility for educating children with autism everytime a frustrated parent pulls their kid out of school in pursuit of alternative education. And it is not acceptable that the autism industry continues to complicate and compromise the perspectives of educators such that they feel incompetent and unprepared to educate children.

According to the Los Angeles Times, California, alone, spent $320 million last year for “autism services,” up from $50 million a decade earlier. Nationwide, the tab is $90 billion annually, a figure expected to double in a decade. Autism services usually translates to “behavior therapy,” which means getting kids with autism to comply by behaving normally—“reducing inappropriate behavior”—instead of making compassionate accommodations by understanding that “behavior” is communication, and learning how to communicate and interact respectfully.

To be succinct, special schools wouldn’t exist if regular schools got it right. That should be the source of all autism educational funding: helping the regular schools to get it right so that segregation—and the prejudice and fear it breeds—is never again an option.

© 2008, William Stillman

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