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There’s no single way to teach children with autism. Regardless of which method a school adopts, though, it’s no mystery what helps them to thrive: calm, not chaos, in the classroom; one-on-one attention from teachers, aides, and therapists; lessons tailored to the individual child’s needs, whether that means learning not to bite or how to make eye contact while shaking hands; and the opportunity to regroup through soothing activities such as swinging, rolling on mats, or listening to music.
Most importantly, nearly all of these students need to work on language development, in whatever form is appropriate—writing, speech, sign language, or pointing to images. For example, a child can signal that she wants to go to the bathroom by speaking, using American Sign Language (thumb between middle and index finger and twisting the wrist twice), or pointing at a picture of a toilet in the Picture Exchange Communication System.
As an administrator, professor, and researcher in the field of special education for the past 40 years, I am continually struck by the rarity of programs for children with autism that include all of these elements.
U.S. federal law requires that public schools educate all children, regardless of their intellectual or physical capabilities. But the law doesn’t spell out what schools must provide, which has made it possible for less ambitious school districts to provide little more than de minimisopportunities for children with developmental delays or behavioral issues.
As a result, our nation is failing the vast majority of the half-million school-age children with autism. We fail these children by not identifying them and treating them early—a key tenet of the federal special education law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The law requires that we identify preschool children with disabilities and provide the behavioral and physical therapy they need to be ready for school. But this part of the law is spottily implemented at best.
We need to give all students the best therapies available in a school setting, putting in the necessary, albeit considerable, funds to do so. The investment will pay dividends later. Research shows that if we give the best available special education to children with severe disabilities, those children are more likely to grow up to be productive, independent and able to contribute to society as tax-paying citizens.
While researching two books on special education, I learned that a number of public school districts—especially those in Massachusetts, Utah, New Jersey, and California—have developed stellar programs for children with autism. But these model programs make up a tiny minority of special education programs and do not seem to be sparking many imitators. Exceptional programs for students with autism and other disabilities often operate in obscurity.
Some of that silence may be strategic. Trumpeting a top-notch special education program can motivate families with hard-to-educate children to immigrate from other towns or states, further straining the school district’s budget.
But there’s a cultural disconnect as well. School leaders are all too happy to boast about test scores, athletic trophies, and science-fair winners, but they don’t typically champion excellence in special education.