Budget Cuts Create Additional Autism Education Woes

A medley of current special education headlines paint a grim picture. In a national survey, special educators report that they are carrying a maximum caseload with diminished support and that it is increasingly difficult for them to deliver free and appropriate education as mandated by law. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that federal education officials are allowing states to reduce spending on special education on a case-by-case basis. Last month, Alabama and New Jersey were granted waiver requests from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing these states to trim their special education spending to the tune of $9.2 million and $25.6 million, respectively, with South Carolina and Iowa eager to follow suit.

All the while, teachers are under major pressure for their students to perform well on standardized tests. Federal dollars depend on it and in some states, teachers’ salary and contract renewals are at stake as well. To compound matters, autism rates continue to soar, placing even more strain on an already taxed system.

As of late, mainstreaming children with autism seems to be another cost cutting trend. And while it is common knowledge that mainstreaming can be very beneficial, that’s only true if it’s done right. A recent survey of teachers found that while they are largely in favor of including students with autism and other developmental disorders in their mainstream classrooms, they believe these kids typically are not prepared to succeed in that context. This means that most teachers are putting the burden for inclusion entirely on the child, prompting the survey taker to remark that a values clarification is in order for them.

Without the knowledge and skills to accommodate a child with autism in the mainstream classroom, teachers can become frustrated and even angry with them, resenting the time they take away from the class at-large. More often than not, a child with autism is treated as a behavioral problem and parents are left at a loss to explain to the teacher that he or she is punishing symptoms of their child’s autism, not willful misbehavior.

I recently had to withdraw my son from his first year of high school and home school him because of this very
scenario. While I told his teacher over and over that managing his anxiety was priority one, she focused on compliance and academic production. She responded to his escalating anxiety attacks with escalating punishment, until it made him physically ill. When confronted, she told me that she didn’t have an aide and she couldn’t teach her class because of my son. When I complained to school officials about the dearth of autism training amongst even special education teachers, I was told there was no money for it.

I actually think teaching educators about autism could be done in a very affordable manner and it might be more a matter of them seeing that it is in their own best interest to have a truly inclusive learning environment. My next move is to try to persuade the interim school district leader of my notions. 

She claims to be open to parents’ concerns. We shall see.