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AUTISM AWARENESS: You’re Aware… Now What?

Posted on: April 30, 2013

We can be as aware of autism as we are of the sun and moon, but this really only means that you’re on to it, you know it exists. It’s a good start; please know this – But we haven’t achieved anything until that awareness then evolves into something.  And that ladies and gentlemen is when we’ve transformed potential into a sort of action which then makes way for our children and the adults they will become, playing a valuable role in society, and for our society to see themselves as the beneficiary.

The thing is, autism awareness acceptance month has ended but it will never end for me. So, I ask that you please allow me to express my grave concern over the following…

Teacher Training

I’m a firm believer that there’s a need for major improvements to our teacher training program. I’ll just come out with it… It is my belief that there are teachers who have a less than positive attitude towards students with disabilities and their inclusion in general education classrooms – And this is not necessarily good or bad but… Actually, it is bad – But I say this, not to lay blame at their feet because I believe that a lot of it (not all) has to do with their training. Think about it. They are the ones who set the tone of their class. This means the success of inclusion of students with disabilities will depend on the prevailing attitudes of the teacher as they interact with these students. The implications here are far-reaching.

In our current program the special education course is what I would consider “weak”. Added to that, it’s optional. There is still such a huge separation between “regular” and “special” education with regards to our trainee program. If this orientation continues how are they ever going to get more opportunities to integrate materials taught or get a chance to experience the transdisciplinary nature of education as it should be practiced in classrooms today?

The fact that many of our autistic kids (and other disabilities) are just aging out of the school system, though certainly disappointing, should not be a surprise to anyone who examines what actually happens in our schools, and compare it to what research in other countries have clearly shown to be effective in educating these students. For quite some time now I’ve been urging the Ministry to begin collecting (accurate) data which they can then use to drive decision-making. To date, this is still not being done. Little productive change has eventuated at the policy level, much less at the classroom level.

So, what does all this mean? Teachers should be prepared for the students they are going to teach. When this does not happen both students and teachers are being setup for failure.

Ultimately though, I believe we should give every bad teacher an opportunity to train to get better, and if they don’t, they should be fired. Yes teachers, you’re special, but you’re not that special.

Ideology

In Antigua & Barbuda we have an “inclusion by default policy”. This means, that yes; officials may very well say that some students with disabilities are in the general classrooms in various schools – And this for them is inclusion. However, administrators and teachers interpret it as they choose, sometimes based on personal ideologies, and often to the detriment of students, because there are no Ministry checks and balances to ensure the intent of the “so-called” policy is respected.

So let me be clear… Inclusion is not a school or is it a class, or a student. What it is though, is a belief that regardless of labels, ALL students should be members of the general education community, having access to the full range of curriculum options.

To be honest, there is still some controversy over whether or not inclusion is appropriate, for example, for someone like my son (who’s autistic). However, in my opinion, I sometimes think that those who are not in favor of this are overlooking what is at the heart of the inclusion model. Don’t get me wrong, my philosophy is not inclusion at all costs. However, I think students must receive needed supports and services within the context of the regular classroom. When these accommodations are insufficient to insure educational success, then students can be placed in more restrictive settings. I also think it’s important for the students to have the opportunity to interact with nondisabled peers.

While I’m on the topic of inclusion; the “dunce class” – And you, yes you; don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The “dunce class” in some of our public schools is no substitute for inclusion or special education either. What a shame, the way our kids are bullied, belittled, branded and forgotten because of a diagnosed/undiagnosed learning disorder.

We need to get away from this thinking that students, and this is students with or without disabilities, fall into neat categories of educational need. It just isn’t so.

The State of the Union

Yes; I’m going there.

To begin, let me state that teacher-bashing does not equal reform and I want to avoid it at all costs. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, I hope you see it for what it is – A campaign for improved educational provisions for those children who have been excluded from or marginalized within our education system because of their disability.

So yes; you have a right to stand up and demand more/better for your members and I will support you on that – But – Demand more and better for our children as well. Contrary to popular belief (and not that this makes it right) you’re not the only “public servants” who are underpaid and overworked. I’m certain many of your members are concerned about this, but I have to be honest; you’re silence on this matter has been deafening. Teaching for the children is still a part of your mission, right?

Resourcing

Let me be the first to acknowledge that yes, funding is an issue – But as I’ve said before, in some instances it is not always a matter of more money; it is a matter of smarter money. We absolutely cannot continue to throw our hands up in the air and say there is no money so we can’t do anything.

First of all I think we need someone within the Ministry to “own” this; Special Education. Not that everyone don’t all play a role at the end of the day but someone has to “own” it – And overtime give that person a team to work with. This cannot be someone who’s already taxed by their workload in the Ministry. This is unfair to our students, teacher and the overworked employee because that person cannot give the Special Education the attention it deserves.

What the Ministry of Education needs to understand is that they have to take this matter seriously. Not just in thought but in deed. Not that attitude will change overnight if they do but I think it sets the stage for that change to occur. It’s a ripple effect. “We don’t have enough money” is no longer acceptable or defensible for bad educational policies.

I’m disappointed at the state of affairs with regards to special education but I’m not surprised.

Stand Your Ground System

We have a sort of “stand your ground” special education system in Antigua & Barbuda. This means when parents want to get any help in the public system they must be able to speak-up, stand their ground and know which doors to knock on, especially when help is initially denied. And when the public system fails, families with financial means turn to private options to rescue their kids. But the vast majority of our students with autism/other disabilities in our public schools don’t have that luxury. When they complain about inadequate supports to assure academic progress, they’re told that’s all the funds the Ministry has and that’s all they should expect. End of story.

As I write my final column for Autism Awareness Acceptance Month, I just want people to know that at the end of the day, no parent who has ever watched their child or another child struggle would ever want to deny an opportunity to help a child in crisis find the support necessary to thrive and succeed. My heart goes out to families whose children have been failed because of the public system. It kills me when other families approach me and ask for help because their children are suffering and they don’t know who to talk to/afraid to “stand their ground”. These are things that they know deep down goes against everything that’s right and fair with regards to the education of their child. Let me tell you – I sometimes struggle to find the quality that, thank God, is still somewhere within me to listen and not speak my mind in very unprintable terms. Because the irony of the situation is; that’s my kid too that they’re doing this to.

Solutions that tackle the above problems within our public schools are what we need, because these will help all students who are struggling, not just a few. The private schools are good to have but guess what? They’re private! They cost! And the tuitions are generally outside of the reach of the average family. Plus ask anyone of these schools who has a special education component as a part of their offering and they will tell you that they’re overwhelmed with parents (those who can pay the tuition and many who can’t) wanting to register their kids. And a school does not a policy make.

What we need are solutions that are imbedded in the public system from the outset. Yes they will take more effort but they will identify the real barriers, generate more buy-in, serve ALL children and pay the maximum long-term dividends for all students.

What we have now is a system where we do nothing about problem, provide no intervention, and end up with a significant group of disillusioned students who have lost contact with the curriculum. How about focusing our attention and resources on emphasizing the resolution of our mistakes? So this sequence of not chain of initial failure, embarrassment, disappointment, detachment and finally dropping out, that is so predictable and ongoing, needs to come to an end. Stop addressing it as if they’re all separate issues; they are not.

We still have many folks who are in positions which can effect change but they view autism and other disabilities as a leeches on the public school system who will suck resources as they are forced (by the way, this would be by our own laws) to serve our kids.

I’ve said many times before that if any of these people would just stop to think about what it will eventually cost ALL of us in society, if we do not do everything in our power while they’re in their childhood to produce a physically and emotionally healthy, self-sufficient adult. After all, we raise them to be men and women not children.

Our law says education for ALL. Not some. Not for those who can afford to pay – But for ALL children – One that’s appropriate and in the least restrictive environment.

So when we demand, in the name of our children, education over lip service, we have nothing to apologize for.

 

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3 Responses to "AUTISM AWARENESS: You’re Aware… Now What?"

Politicians for some reason are always reactive instead of proactive. Well said Salma.

I am a teacher and I endorse what was said! Perhaps because I am a caregiver of an autistic child, or perhaps it is because I have always had a love for special needs children/persons that I am not just aware, but I have accepted autism.

I work in the system and I know that very little resources are expended on any form of special needs education. In fact, persons who have been trained in special needs education, more often than not, are returned to ‘regular’ classrooms and the persons in authority seem not to take into consideration the fact that there ARE children being left behind. Moreover, the process of educating teachers (and even parents) about differing abilities appears to be taking the scenic route.

Even us, as educators, seem not to be too bothered about those children who are special needs or have cognitive disabilities. In fact, how many teachers even know what is autism? A co-worker once inquired about my niece, who is often seen with me. She was very hesitant to even mention the word ‘autistic’ as though it were taboo to do so. I explained to her what autism was and was still stunned by her response, “So is she retarded?”

I very often said to my friends that unless you have been a parent to a special needs child, you have not begun to ‘parent’ as yet. I admire the work you are doing, Salma, and I, too, am committed to ensuring that my niece becomes a productive member of our society.

Autism is not a death sentence!

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