Not a week goes by anymore wherein at least one hyperbolic headline screams a disturbing tale of school abuse of a child with autism. Every one of them provokes an avalanche of (understandable) outrage from parents. I needn’t paint details of such stories here because they’re free for the Googling. They’re appalling, no question. But it’s important to put each story in context: a one-sided telling of one appalling story about one appalling teacher. It’s no less appalling how we allow such sordid stories to gobble media real estate and ignore the larger picture, that of the thousands of deeply devoted teachers who toil in obscurity on behalf of our kids and never get recognized.
Week in and week out, I get messages from teachers fighting their administrations on behalf of their students with autism, teachers distraught over parents who refuse to get their children the help they need, paraeducators frustrated and flummoxed by their colleagues’ resistance to making simple classroom accommodations that would make a big difference for their students with autism. Here are a few excerpts:
“I have been a primary teacher for five years and always have a child with autism in my class. These children have challenged me, but they are always a blessing. I always focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t do.”
“I have learned as I go, and have such a heart for special education services. I know that my fight is one child at a time and within my own classroom. I am here to help those students while they are in my circle, and if I can help even one, then I will be the educator I want to be.”
“How it is possible for a teacher to complete a school year with the frustration, elation, and excitement of learning with a child with autism without falling in love with that child? Without crying with joy at his or her accomplishments in the face of adversity, and moving forward with even a kernel of knowledge and self-assurance?”
“Many parents are unaware that they have a right to seek evaluation from a private psychologist if they disagree with the school psychologist, and the school has to pay for it. It drives me nuts that so many students are misplaced and underestimated. I have constantly battled the administration because they think my students can do nothing but ‘functional life skills.’ I disagree, and try to prove it with the assignments I give. It’s an uphill battle.”
“I have a student I strongly suspect is on the spectrum. Instead of getting the child study team in here, my director sent this mom to an ENT, then to a speech doctor because she doesn’t want to be the one to suggest that the child has developmental delays. So Mom has to dish out hefty co-pays when she could just register him and have the Child Services Team do their work, which would probably include hearing check and speech therapy. Argh, it makes me red. I’ve been teaching my student sign language to help supplement his expressive language, and I’m working with him on fine motor skills and trying to help him ease into a friendship. I’m very patient and caring with him, waiting for Mom to ask me how he is doing so I can refer her to the CST without stepping on my boss’ toes. So frustrating!”
“I am a special education preschool teacher, and I fight for the rights of children by involving our local child study team (although some still do not have the best interest of the child at heart). When I teach, I want every child to have the best day of their life in school. I upgrade the positive and downgrade the negative. I love seeing their lights go off when they com
Bringing toe-curling horror stories to light is the right thing to do because then we can address them, for the benefit of all kids. And I’m always mindful that it’s nearly impossible to judge any situation based on media reports when we have no familiarity with the source or its reputation for credibility. I can’t bring myself to tar an entire school or school system because of a small percentage of outrageous teachers. Every incidence of teacher abuse requires a specific response. But abuse, bullying and discrimination against students who are perceived as different, whether by teachers or by peers, is a societal problem, not just an autism problem, and it is going to require a societal response, even as we handle incidents on an individual basis. Every school, every teacher deserves to be evaluated on individual merits—which is no less than what every parent wants for their child.