Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mohala i ka wai ka maka o ka pua- As the faces of flowers open to water, so too do people thrive where the living conditions are good

Trigger Warning for violence and abuse

If I were to comment on every story on autism I see on a mainstream piece of news, I would be left with a major headache and blisters on the tips of my fingers.
But one autism story that has been popping up more and more lately is the story of children with autism being abused in the hands of their teachers, aides, or parents. It is often chalked up to a "few bad apples", rather than a tale of systematic abuse of children with disabilities due to widespread misunderstanding of the nature of autism, how children with disabilities communicate, and a culture that devalues children and regards them as someone to be seen and not heard.
Very rarely does a type of story that is of vital importance to people with autism get discussed: Creating an autism-friendly environment in our schools.
In my own experiences as a person with autism, public school environments put in little to no effort to make the school physical environment any more comfortable, safe, or inviting. Loud, noisy cafeterias where the din from metal against metal, feet against floor, and harsh fluorescent light can cause panic attacks or meltdowns, uncomfortable chairs where certain forms of stimming are uncomfortable or impossible and overcrowded classrooms, extreme heat, and exposure to textures, smells, and tastes that triggered meltdowns, all of these marked my experience as a student when I was young.
This distracting environment miserably affected my academic performance. The sole consolation was that my school was extremely well-planned in regards to surrounding nature- flowers, trees, and bushes which allowed me to observe insects, collect leaves, and create my own mini toys or dolls out of the pods, leaves, and sticks. But not all schools have that good fortune, and for many children, there is no escape from the over-stimulation. The social environment in my elementary school experience was characterized by isolation, due to me being "different" and weird. This didn't bother my young self when it came to recess and free time, because I enjoyed being by myself. In mandatory group activities though, I was forced to interact with others. My saving grace was my ability to follow instructions quite well, as long as the language wasn't filled with idioms I was unfamiliar with. In fairness, my elementary school made certain I was included in these activities, even if I was seen as a "freak" by the other students.
My experiences at a private school between grades 6 and 8 were improved in terms of the physical environment slightly. The classrooms were air-conditioned, the lighting was considerably less harsh, and a few of the classrooms had the luxury of a couch, which I would sit in and read or stim during recess and lunch break. The cafeteria was smaller as well, and the lighting was turned off during the daytime, and sunlight came in through the windows. However, in terms of the social environment, the situation considerably deteriorated. Collaborative learning is extremely important in those school years, but nobody wanted to be paired up with "the freak", so the groups that got stuck with me never let me forget their resentment and dislike of being around me. I recall the teachers doing mild reprimands, but no strong, consistent effort was made to combat the type of subtle, passive aggressive bullying I experienced.
My experience is one of the more mild ones that can happen to a student with autism though. Other children have been put through much worse. Eighteen percent [1] of children with autism have been abused physically, and sixteen percent [2] were sexually abused.
Based on my own experiences and the collective data on the horror of the abuse perpetrated against children with autism, I have to temper my own desire to see the very best actions taken for my brothers and sisters on the spectrum with the reality that many public schools are terrifyingly underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded. Autism knows no class boundaries, and can become apparent in the family trees of millionaire and construction worker alike. But poor children on the spectrum do not have access to the resources that children born to wealthier families do, and will often languish the worst in poor schools with limited funding. Little effort is made to invest more money into education for disabled children, or even able bodied neurotypical children. More funding definitely needs to be allotted to teaching children and teachers alike about the needs of children with autism, and how an environment that is ideal for all three parties can be met.
But there is absolutely no excuse for the level of cruelty and violent abuse that children with autism have suffered from teachers in certain cases. Regardless of how "difficult controlling the child" was, adults in a position of power exercising such violent control over children whom they are responsible for is nothing short of a failing of our society to understand that children with autism need our love and acceptance. Not violence or exclusion.
My previous point about finances has an additional footnote: While it may seem expensive to overhaul public education not only to better serve the needs of disabled children, but to create classrooms that are inviting and enriching for ALL children will be expensive, it will pay for itself in the long run. Schools were neurodiversity is promoted, where children of all levels of ability exist side by side and all receive the help they need, it creates a society where these children grow up to be adults who have the flexibility and empathy to accommodate people of all backgrounds. I think the ways that could benefit our society speaks for itself. Also, children with autism who are treated well as children and flourish in their environments grow up to be adults who are not afraid of the world around them, and can use their own unique abilities to chip in to a harmonious future.
I have argued before that neurodiversity shouldn't mean we should only value intelligent individuals who are verbal and can hold jobs. People with autism of all ability levels have their own special talents to share. If we nurture these gifts, we will see more people with autism becoming invaluable contributors to their fields and their communities. Not just the "Rain Men" that are so popular in mainstream myth, but all people with autism.
If neurotypical society makes an honest and vigilant effort to understand the needs of individuals with autism and implement them, make them standard procedure, we will not ever need this conversation again, nor will news stories about children being beaten, restrained, locked up, caged, hit, kicked, and sat on darken my inbox on a weekly basis.
That is my first quixotic message to my readers.

1 comment:

  1. How horrible! When I was in 7th grade, I was a TA in a special needs class, (they called it 'Special Ed' then) It was strange for me at first, and scary, as I was a very shy youth. I had trouble mostly, because I didn't know how to communicate with some of the kids. After a month or so, we all became friends and they all seemed 'normal' to me. Of course I was made fun of at lunch time when some of the kids from that class would hang out with me, but the plus' were greater than the negative. I am happy I had that experience. I am happy to say, There was no abuse, only nurturing in that school. Great Teacher, Mrs. Costa. I remember her well. Strictest English teacher I ever had. LOL