April, Autism, Awareness, and Acceptance

Unfortunately, the autism community is polarized (and therefore paralyzed) on many issues. It’s fairly divisive (go figure in these days and times!), and people have widely differing views on everything from person-first language to vaccines. We can’t even agree on what to do with our little month of April. For most, “awareness” of autism doesn’t cut it, and we should be seeking “acceptance” of our kiddos and their behaviors, needs, and neurology from the general populace. Some (myself included) feel like awareness is a necessary first step that leads to acceptance, but others are not content to be patient with the rest of the world.

I get it.

But if we as a community continue to argue about every issue that exists, the result could be worse than a lack of awareness. If the message is muddled or unclear, no one hears it.

We need to agree to disagree on the issues that divide us. Table them until we can tackle each in its own time. Focus on one thing that will do the most good for those on the spectrum.

In my humble opinion, this one thing would be autism awareness and competence of our nation’s educators.

It is unfathomable to me that teachers across the country are still unaware of the core deficits of autism. They are as of yet unaware that an IEP is a federal document, and a binding agreement to which they are held accountable. They do not know how to make simple modifications and accommodations for a growing segment of their student population. And of course I do not mean all, or even most teachers in this country. But our special ed teachers need help, folks. If our kiddos have a right to the least restrictive environment, we want them in general ed classrooms with teachers who have a clue. Because let’s face it – our kids are at school each day much longer than they are at home. And if they are met with adults who see them as a “problem” or ” more work” or are just clueless in general about how they work, how devastating is that to this entire generation?

If the community could just get behind one urgent issue, this would get my vote, and I don’t think we’re very divided on this one.

This would be my wish for April and the autism community at large.

Dear Autism Community

Hostile

tuba practiceMany of The Boy’s teachers have admittedly low exposure to students with autism.  We’ve already mentioned the social studies teacher and her issues, several times.  One of the teachers who has admitted from day one that he doesn’t know what he’s doing has been The Boy’s band teacher.

Now having been a band teacher, I have been more than willing to help, offering suggestions, explaining things to him, and we have had a pretty good relationship because I know he is trying.  We had gotten into a routine of communicating via email, and he would let me know the assignments, and I would send him the practice log.

A few weeks ago, he didn’t let us know that the assignment had changed, and in fact, didn’t email me until after The Boy had taken a test on material he had never practiced.  The teacher had realized his mistake, and emailed me with the week’s assignment, and that he would let The Boy re-take the test the following week.

That meant that the following week, we were practicing what the rest of the class had already finished the week before, and started to put The Boy behind the ball in this class.

And now this week, we have taken a different turn.  I’ve been emailed several times, with efforts to “document” what the teacher feels is a disciplinary issue, with The Boy “refusing” to play.  I explained that we were behind because of the earlier issue, and that we would try to get him caught up as soon as possible.  And I continue to get emails, like the one this morning, asking me to “explain a discrepancy”: The Boy is struggling in class with pieces that I indicated on the practice log that he could play without difficulty.

Turns out, after closer inspection, I was using his symbol system wrong, and that in his minus, check, plus system, the check is the highest score…  Mea culpa.

But this leaves me to wonder.  Is the lack of knowledge of autism leading these teachers to act in this way?  To want to kick The Boy out of their classes, or to prove that he “can’t” do what everyone else does?  As a former teacher myself, I can’t identify with this, and I don’t understand it.  The knowledge of a diagnosis in one of my students immediately caused me to be more compassionate, more flexible, and often spurred me to do my own research on the condition.

I suppose its root is fear.  Maybe, with training, these teachers can be led away from their hostile instincts.  Or maybe not.  In either case, this is what we’re dealing with, and it’s confusing, it hurts, it angers.  And I only have so much patience for teachers like this who should never, ever hold a child’s issues against them.

3 Things I’ve Learned from The Boy’s Worst Teacher

If you are a regular reader, you know we’ve been struggling with The Boy’s new school since day one of this school year.  They seem to have precious little experience with autism, or even with IEPs, modifications, and accommodations, which cannot be remotely possible, but here we are.  I have felt all along that their hearts are basically in the right place, they are just ignorant…  with one exception.  The Boy’s social studies teacher has repeatedly demonstrated contempt, if not for The Boy himself, then for the extra effort he requires.  She is the type of teacher who follows the textbook as if it were a bible, and pushes those 6th graders as if social studies is their only class, and their one true avocation in life.  Her assessments have little to do with the content learned, and seem to have been added as an afterthought, possibly when an administrator asked her to expand her resources to other sources than the textbook.

I received a note home from her in the planner, mid-week, that explained that The Boy had been given a modified test, and even with extra time had completed very little of it.  OK, Problem Number One: I looked back in his planner, what is supposed to be our primary method of communication between school and home, and there was no mention of a test.  I went on this teacher’s website, and there was no mention of a test, I looked back in my emails, and there was NO MENTION OF A TEST.  So I emailed the teacher immediately, pointing out that I had no previous knowledge of a test to be given this week, and was there a review sheet?  She emailed back the next day, saying she had looked in The Boy’s planner and it had been written at least four times in the last week that there was a test Wednesday…  This was an outright lie!  I had made a copy of the current page of the planner, because I like to document these notes of hers (this was not the first) that seem to imply she’s doing everything she can and The Boy is being somehow disobedient by not complying.  I emailed back to say that her statement was incorrect, that I had made copies of his planner pages, and there was nothing written in the social studies slot in the planner during the last week.  She responded, apologized and blamed it on the 11 year-old girl who helps The Boy write things in his planner, saying she had either written it in the wrong spot or had not copied exactly what was on the board.

Can you feel the anger rising in my throat by now?

We’ll get back to the outright lie in a minute.

Problem Number Two: She explained that there had been no review sheet, that the students were supposed to study from their “chapter work,” and that due to personal issues and being out for a few days the previous week, she hadn’t updated her website.  Well, The Boy didn’t have any “Chapter 3 work” to study — it had all been turned in.  I had requested review sheets from her starting with the first test (this was their third already), so that I could help him prepare and focus for the test, and again she had disregarded The Boy’s needs.

Problem Number Three: “Extended Time” as an accommodation does not mean an extra ten minutes within the same class period, and I explained this to her.  I also explained that he is entitled to take his test in another location, have his test read to him, and all of the other testing accommodations that are in his IEP.  I asked her if he could bring it home to take it and she didn’t respond.  She just keeps giving it to him every class period and expecting him to complete it.

In my opinion, this has gone beyond a teacher “trying” to provide my son with modifications and accommodations.  This is now willful ignorance.  She has a history of not communicating with me about upcoming tests.  With the first, we had one day’s notice, and with the second and third there was no notice at all.  And for all three tests, I have seen one review sheet.  She has a history of not providing modifications to his assignments, and when I requested more time for him to study before the first test, she refused.  And now, not only did she lie to me about there being four notes about this week’s test in The Boy’s planner, she had The Boy and his helper go back and write in the notes after I told her there was nothing in the planner.  She got my email, waited until the next day in class, had them write things in the previous week in his planner, and then claimed they had been written there all along.

I have requested a meeting with the principal about this, even though I am hopeful that we won’t have to deal with this too much longer.

What have I learned?

  • Document everything.  I had a feeling I should copy those planner pages the night I wrote my email.  Unfortunately, I only copied one.  But at least I have that, and I have every email she has ever written which shows this pattern of a lack of communication and a lack of willingness to accommodate my son’s needs.
  • Don’t assume every teacher has your child’s best interest at heart.  It pains me to say this, and I don’t think this is true for 99% of the teachers out there, but I’ve learned this the hard way.
  • Don’t avoid confrontation about something like this.  I could take the easy way out and just bide my time until we can get out of the school, but I know there are other kids with autism in this teacher’s class, and I can only imagine how they and every other kid with an IEP who has ever been in her class have been treated.  It’s not right, and she needs to be called on it.

The View from the Other Side Is Blurry

I had a post drafted for today, but I had to revise it.  I’ve mentioned the struggles we’re having with The Boy’s new school, and how little they seem to know about autism, and how to make modifications and accommodations that are necessary for him to thrive within the general education curriculum.  His teachers came to his IEP meeting with that deer-in-headlights look, as if they have never seen a creature like my son before, and had no clue about how to assist him in his learning.

As a teacher, I knew that ineffective teaching existed — I just didn’t really witness it.  I taught for over 17 years, and rarely did I work or come into contact with colleagues from whom I wouldn’t want my son to learn.  There were strict teachers and lax teachers, friendly teachers and more distant teachers, scattered teachers and organized teachers, but essentially they still knew what they were doing.  It was even more rare to come across a teacher who was not good with kids.  Even teachers who were not warm and fuzzy were still able to form relationships with kids and treat them fairly and professionally.

I guess that’s why I’m having such a hard time with one of The Boy’s teachers in particular.  They all seem a little lost in terms of autism, and a few seem a little scattered in terms of general teaching skills.  This one in particular has problems communicating, both with me and The Boy.  She assigns a crazy amount of work, even for a neurotypical student.  She uses rubrics, but they do not seem to assess knowledge of social studies content, rather the processes by which the content is expressed – for example, there is a public speaking rubric for sharing current events, and a writing rubric for a research project.  I don’t know for sure, but I can guess that she is not teaching about public speaking and/or writing in her class, so where are the assessments that give her information on what the students have learned from her?

More importantly in our own case is that she seems to dislike having a student in her room that isn’t “normal”.  She decided on the second day of school that The Boy should be placed in the resource room rather than go to her class because he wasn’t “doing the work”.  She wrote in his planner last week that he wouldn’t “answer” her.  She sent me an email today, saying that The Boy had printed off 43 pages from the internet in the computer lab yesterday and that there is a rule against printing without a teacher’s permission. She has made only one modification since the beginning of the year, giving The Boy a modified review sheet and quiz that she had printed off from a “special needs workbook” published by the textbook publisher, and refused to give him extra time to study as I requested, and which is also an accommodation spelled out in his IEP.

When I got the email about computer lab printing rules today, I could hear my pulse quicken, could feel the blood in my veins heat up, saw my hands clenching into fists involuntarily.  I took a breath, and reminded myself not to answer immediately (calm down, Mama Bear – Ha!).  After a few minutes, I responded that I would reinforce the printing rule with The Boy when he returned home, but also asked her to please remember that he has a hard time asking for help when he needs it.

And then I sat down to write this post.

And this seemed like even more proof that this woman was not nice, would continue to be a source of frustration and obstruction this school year, and was looking for any excuse to prove that my son can’t.

And then she responded to my last email, telling me she knew he didn’t do it on purpose, and that he shared his research project in front of the class by sharing his maps while she read his points of interest, and the children clapped for him.  She said it was a successful day for everyone.

And all of a sudden, my impressions of her became blurred, and a little bit of hope peeked through.

I can only hope that we will all learn a lot this year.

A ray of hope?...

A ray of hope?…

Addendum to My Last Post

Let me assure you that when I wrote my last post, there were several drafts, and I let time pass so that it wasn’t the rant it started out as.  The problem here is not his teacher, as it rarely is.  Could she have been more proactive? Could she (still) be better using her resources?  Yes, and yes.

However.

The real problem is part of a much larger problem with education everywhere in our country.  Too often, teachers and students are made to “get by” with what they have.  Sometimes fault lies with local administrators and school boards.  Sometimes, fault lies with the state and federal governments.  It doesn’t really matter.  The fact is that we say we care about education in this country, and we just don’t.  When millages come up, we vote them down in fear of higher taxes.  When politicians run for office, we care only about our own personal hot-button issues and where each candidate stands on those – their records on education are often a secondary consideration (if not further down).  Very few people ever attend a school board meeting, let alone parent-teacher conferences.

In my son’s case, there are two special education teachers for about 40 students in the school.  They have one aide.  They just started a self-contained classroom and hired a brand new teacher for that program – excellent!  But that doesn’t help those kids who are higher functioning, and need adult supports in the classroom like my son.

The Boy and I met with his teacher at the school yesterday – on the holiday weekend.  She spent the day there working on setting up schedules and supports for my son – how could we not go in to help?  She still doesn’t quite get it, but she’s trying.  I can’t ask much more from her.

But you had better believe I won’t stop asking those with hiring power.

Just a Parent Now…

Now that I am “just a parent” as opposed to a teacher/parent, I thought I would re-post a post I wrote in the spring during teacher appreciation week.  Especially because we are starting at a new school, and a new level of school, I have questions.  LOTS of questions.  And I have this impatient need to get answers quickly.  I have decided to reign myself in, because I remember the first week of school, and The Boy’s teachers could use one less email from me this week if I don’t really need the answer today.

 

Gearing up for Middle School

A new Landaff teacher in the 1940s watches as ...I met with The Boy’s special education teacher yesterday, who had just been handed his “file” a few hours previous to the meeting, and the county autism specialist who has 16 schools-worth of students on her caseload.  There are two special ed teachers at his school, and I had been told that The Boy would probably be assigned to the other, and he indeed had until a few hours before the meeting.  I can’t say exactly why, but after looking at their info on the school website, I was secretly pleased about the last minute switch.  Needless to say she hadn’t had any time to review his file, and come to find out, it didn’t have the copy of the IEP and testing that I had sent to the county autism specialist in it anyway…

So we talked about The Boy, about his strengths and areas of struggle, about what motivates him and what sets him off.  We talked about the similarities between the programs in our new state and our previous state, and the types of accommodations that could be made for him within his school day.  We talked about for which subjects inclusion was going to work, and for which he would need to be pulled out to the resource room.  We talked about computers, band, and lunch…

The autism consultant seemed overconfident, and the special ed teacher seemed overwhelmed (she was missing a portion of her own teachers’ meeting to meet with me), but both seemed receptive and open.

And I am, too.

I know that our new state’s education system ranks perilously near the bottom.  I knew that walking in. And when I pulled out the work samples I had brought with me, they asked, “Are there rubrics on all of these?  We don’t use those here.  Do they help him?”  I almost stumbled over my bottom lip, and I hope my incredulity didn’t show on my face as much as I felt it inside.  You see, I was taught from about day one in ED101 how to develop rubrics for every assignment, a way to clearly communicate your expectations for students.  And that was 20 years ago.  This county (and I’m assuming state) doesn’t even use them, probably hasn’t ever been trained in them, and it was a sucker-punch reminder that we are in one of those states, the ones with piss-poor funding and even crappier respect for its teachers, those teachers who haven’t gotten a raise in six years and are prit-near the bottom of the list when it comes to teacher pay, too…

But I also know that all the research says that the teacher has the most influence on how well a student does in school.  And in my son’s case, that will be his special ed teacher, making sure his accommodations are in place, remediating when necessary, building that long-term relationship and trust.  In this meeting, I witnessed how far behind this state is, but I also witnessed how willing his teacher is to be his everything while still pushing him as far as he can go.  I know that, between the two of us, he’s going to be OK, and that’s a relief.

Why I Love Field Day

Most teachers aren’t very fond of field day.  In fact, in my district it was even the source of a fierce battle about prep time awhile back.  But I love it.  At least I love it when my kid has it.

His field day was last week.  I think he even chose a special “athletic-themed” outfit for that day, choosing to wear his T-shirt from the special needs baseball camp he has been to the past two summers.  It doesn’t hurt that he loves his gym teacher, and wants to be one when he grows up.

His school gives each kid a long ticket-type thing that lists the various activities, that get punched as they visit the stations, and they can also be recognized on the ticket for showing good sportsmanship (or having an “oops!” moment, but The Boy has never earned an “oops!” he is proud to tell me).

field day '13

Here’s why I love it so much: I often have no clue about what happens at school, because he just chooses not to tell me (thank goodness his ASD teacher sends home a daily communication log to let me know about highlights, or I’d be completely in the dark!).  But on field day, we have a nice long conversation. When I pick The Boy up from Kids Club, and with the ticket in hand, I ask him about each one with a punch next to it.  I ask him to explain how it works, and whether or not he liked it (he always likes them all).  And he does tell me — at length!  I have a guide that tells me what to ask him about his day, and I do, and he responds.  That’s a big thing for us.   And I enjoy it a great deal.