The New York Daily News reports that Brandon Strong, a ten-year-old student with autism and ADHD, has been systematically punished at
a New York charter school for exhibiting symptoms of his conditions. He has
reportedly been detained during lunch and after school for behavior that
includes talking to himself, failing to look teachers in the eye and fidgeting.
Strong was once a successfully mainstreamed student, but is now having problems
sleeping and throwing fits when it’s time to go to school.
Meetings with school officials have brought no resolution and they have maintained that the parents are exaggerating the issues and not on board with the school’s methods of preparing their son for college.
My two sons, who both have high functioning autism, have been in similar scenarios all of their lives. A few years ago, I was told by a teacher that my one son "would never be successful in his class or any other" because he was unable to take handwritten notes, wouldn’t talk when called upon and didn’t make eye contact with the teacher.
Outraged, I transferred him to another school, where his new teacher recognized his charm and potential. She made it a point to show him great respect in front of all her students and they ended up following her lead. My son eventually ended up receiving the top citizenship award at his grade school graduation, thanks in large part to his caring and compassionate teacher.
Although it sometimes can be effective, changing schools in the middle of the year or during a critical time in a student’s life is not the answer. It is the school that must conform to the child, not the other way around. Accommodations for students with disabilities is the law, but the reality is that classroom policies can be shockingly regressive. Many teachers and administrators just don’t understand autism or the laws surrounding it.
Often when problems arise with a teacher, administrators take a defensive posture instead of working in conjunction with parents to create a program that works for the child.
As for young Brandon Strong, toys made specifically for fidgeting exist and can be handled without causing a distraction. Specialized cushions allow for undetectable squirming. Eye contact is to be encouraged, but failure to do so should never be met with punishment. Additionally, the teacher should let it be known to the class that they are to be supportive of everyone, and if Brandon needs to talk to himself sometimes, then that’s okay.
Getting a student with autism ready for college does not entail forcing them to behave like a neurotypical person. It means giving them a level playing field and a safe environment to develop intellectual and social skills.
Time and time again, private and public schools fall short in providing the quality of education mandated by the law and parents are forced to fight for the rights of their child. If the situation leads to an adversarial battle, it is best to bring in outside help from an autism advocacy organization.
Many times, teachers will view special needs students as a nuisance and will do whatever they can to force a child out of their class. But what our schools need are more teachers who genuinely care about all of their students, regardless of the issues they may have.
In the end, the most successful outcomes occur when all parties sit down together and brainstorm about what is best for the student and then implement that plan.