Sunday, January 30, 2011

Separate Schools for Autistics

Ari Ne’eman has an article responding to the recent proposal by Gov. Chris Christie to fund an autism school in every county in New Jersey. In what might strike some people as being counter intuitive for an autism advocate, Ari opposes this proposal and for good reason, considering his own childhood experience. As Ari points out:

As an autistic adult who went through New Jersey's special education system as a child, I experience firsthand the low expectations that are all too common in segregated settings for students with disabilities.

For several years of my childhood, instead of walking to the neighborhood public school a few minutes away from my home, a van took me an hour and a half away to a school for students with disabilities. There, academics took a back seat to social skills classes. A culture of low expectations dominated the educational environment.

I cannot say that I support separate government schools for autistics mainly because I do not support government schools in the first place for anyone. That being said, I worry that by advocating integration we are missing an opportunity. Could not we, in the autistic community, take over such a school and give the children the sort of autistic education they can actually succeed with? If we believe that autism is a difference of mind not a disability then it follows that autistic children would benefit from a learning program designed specifically for them. To grow through the regular public school system, means starting out with special education, guaranteed, by definition, to treat us as inferiors, in the hope of eventually being able to integrate into a wider school, which might not really be a victory either.

The weakness of any integrationist policy is that it, by definition, enshrines the majority culture as the “superior” one to be integrated into. As long as we are trying to be like neurotypicals, we can shout at the top of our lungs that we are their equals, but we will not and they will have every reason to continue to treat us with contempt as their inferiors. This can be seen already in Ari’s own school experience. I am sure his teachers meant well and desired to give him the skills to eventually be able to integrate. That being said they were forcing him to spend time developing skills that he might not have had any particular aptitude with; time that could have been better spent developing those skills he could make best use of. At a more fundamental level the very valuing of neurotypical social skills holds up neurotypicals as the superior thing to which us autistics should try to emulate. If this was going on at an autistic school, how much worse would it be at a regular public school, a system designed around the valuation of socialization at the expense of the simple transfer of knowledge?

I am not saying that autistics have no need to be taught to socialize with neurotypicals, just that socializing, beyond being able to communicate a rational case as to why someone should do what you want, has no intrinsic value. That still leaves the attempt to play on the emotions of others to get them to conform to one’s desires. We generally call such activity manipulation and I have serious qualms about the morality of teaching such skills in school.

What might a real neurodiversity based autistic school look like? For starters we would have to take control away from people whose primary training is special education. As long as we are beholden to that model we will forever be trapped in the cycle of trying to catch up and by like neurotypicals. We need the school to be in the hands of people whose experience is not in treating autism, but in living it. The very concept of a classroom is based on a model of education as socialization and therefore needs to be scraped. In its place we offer a “school” as a building in which children are supervised and restrained from causing harm to others and to themselves; within such a framework children should be left to pursue their own interests. For teachers we should not be searching for education specialists at all, but experts in specific fields. Their purpose is to identify what specific fields of knowledge any given child possesses a predilection for and to work with that child to create specific assignments through which the child can pursue an area of interest. This could be something as simple as agreeing to read a book by a given date, write a report on it or be prepared to talk about it.

The success of the neurodiversity movement is going to depend on our ability to not just claim that we are different though still equal, but on our ability to put that into practice. We need to show that we can produce experts in specific fields of value. Do that and society will readily grant us the accommodations we need. To do this we are going to have to start with the education system and we are going to need to take control of it.


Clarissa said...

I thought of your post for quite a while. Childhood and the teenage years are especially tough for autistics. As an adult, I have a significant degree of control over my world. If I don't feel like talking for several days, I have mechanisms in place that allow me to do that. If I'm having a bad day where my vision and speech get impaired and I can't grab a piece of paper from the desk, I have ways of dealing with that.

A child or a teenager has no such control. Every day when I had to go to school, I was haunted by the visions of every impossible obstacle I would have on that day. Having to speak in front of the class, finding things to do during breaks so that nobody notices that I'm all alone and friendless, buying something in a school cafeteria (what a nightmare!), the dreaded, truly dreaded PhysEd classes where everybody makes fun of how "clumsy" I am, having to hide my comfort objects, trying not to rock because it creeps everybody out, being told to talk louder, to go play or study with other kids, etc. I still shudder when I think of it.

Maybe I would have been better off if there had been options other than a regular school with NT kids. I don't know. I need to think more about this.

Sholom said...

These are random thoughts, and I am trying to play devil's advocate here. Since I am writing in haste, forgive me if some of the observations I make appear insensitive.

The difficulty with the proposal for a comprehensive system of separate education is that the autistic individual, in his day to day life, is still surrounded by neurotypicals, and having to speak the "language of the land," to some degree is probably good educational policy.

One can argue, for instance, that children of immigrants should have their own schools, and effectively form an enclave, separated from the dominant culture, but if competence in the ability to communicate with the dominant society is not ingrained, these children can be set up for major failures down the line.

Additionally, with individuals on the autism spectrum, it may be desirable that they learn to socialize, and marry, neurotypicals. While high functioning autism/Asberger's can be potentially termed a different "state of being," (with even distinct advantages) more profound forms of autism cannot--they are legitimate disabilities; or should I say the disabling elements of their hard-wiring overwhelm whatever benefits they experience.

Is it preferable for two individuals with high functioning autism to marry and have children? The genetic loading there might produce children who have severe impairments. Forming separate schools, leading all the way to high school, may have the downside of ingraining people with a sense that they don't have to negotiate the customs and mores of the dominant (neurotypical) culture, or even associate with neurotypicals at all, as long as they have their enclave of autistic comrades. I think that may be a big mistake.

Izgad said...

Once we remove the moral value of socialization, leaving socialization simply as a pragmatic tool to achieve a desired end, a class on socialization could be reduced a self defense and manipulation course of neurotypicals. This can certainly be placed in a school, but it will have a very different tone.
As for immigrant enclaves, I have always seen public schools as conspiracies to destroy ethnic and minority groups. As a libertarian, I like the idea of small groups being able to hold their own against established governments.
To the best of my knowledge we do not have any studies telling us one way or another whether high functioning autistics are more likely to produce low functioning autistics. We still do not understand the genetic role in autism.