In doing research on finding appropriate placements for students with either high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, I got side tracked by a little jewel of an article that had appeared in a magazine published by the National Education Association. Titled “Square Pegs: Kids with Asperger Syndrome are Hoping You’ll Help Them Find a Place in the Classroom that Fits Just Fine,” the article quotes Lucas, a young man with Asperger’s who had just graduated high school. According to Lucas, “You’ve heard people say we don’t want to be square pegs in round holes, we want to be square pegs in square holes. To me that means we don’t need to be fixed. We’re not broken people. We just need to be understood.” What Lucas is asking for—understanding--is what is essential to ensure a successful placement for the child with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s.
Teachers who are willing to go the proverbial extra mile may discover that children on the spectrum can contribute enormously to their classrooms. These children can shine brightly with a teacher who appreciates who they are and shows classmates by example how to treat the child with autism or Asperger’s with respect. Children who are placed with rigid, top-down disciplinarians are probably not going to do so well. Everyone—the child, the teacher, the principal, and the family—are going to be miserable. And some children simply cannot have their needs met in a mainstream classroom.
High school can be merciless for many kids, not just the ones on the spectrum. Unfortunately, one of the sad realities for kids on the spectrum is that they are frequently bullied. A recent study indicated that 46% of children on the spectrum are bullied compared with 10.6 % of children in the general population. When our son was young, we found it a mixed blessing that he seemed to lack the awareness to recognize when he was being bullied. One call I received from his elementary school was actually about my then 5th grade older son, who had fallen apart after witnessing his brother being teased on the playground as he was “hurricaning” by himself. (Does any parent of a child on the spectrum need me to explain this verb?) According to the kind teacher who made the call, my older son was sobbing in the nurse’s office while the erstwhile bully was cooling his heels in the principal’s office. I would like to say that the school social worker was out on the playground with my younger son to take advantage of a “teachable moment,” but I’m afraid it just wasn’t so.
By the time my younger son reached high school, his brother was 6 ½ feet tall and on the varsity basketball team. It would have been a foolish student who opted to pick on my son with “big brother” in the building. Another hero came into my son’s life in the form of the basketball coach who invited him to join the team as the business manager. We all know that spectrum kids are particularly vulnerable in high school lunch rooms, but freshman year my son ate with members of the varsity basketball team. In my book those boys are champions, and I’m not just referring to their trophies in the main hallway at the high school. My son also discovered Model UN, where he not only was allowed to speak non-stop on a topic which interested him without regard to his listener, but he also could earn awards for it! And to think we had spent years and who knows how much money on pragmatic speech therapy for him. Between his extracurricular activities with the basketball team, the scholastic bowl team, and the Model UN, as well as the support of a wonderful resource teacher, my son was able to find a niche for himself in an extremely large, exceedingly competitive suburban high school. And most importantly, he was happy.
I’ve always loved the poem attributed to Digby Wolfe, “Here’s to the Kids who are Different.” I first ran into it when it was posted on the wall of one of the developmental therapy centers where my son received services. Its reassuring message that “as history has shown, it’s their differences that make them unique” made me both smile and reassured me. But I’m fully aware that my son was exceedingly lucky; his disorder is fairly mild, and in school he found caring teachers who were willing to support him and by extension, peers who were willing to accept him and even be his friends. Unfortunately, not every child is so fortunate.