One of the biggest challenges I have faced being autistic is the experience of school. From what I’ve seen and read, I know that the I’m Not Alone Fairy has made another visit.
Bluntly speaking, school sucked, and truth be told, I honestly have no clue how I made it through unscathed.
Oh wait–I was scathed. I made it through alright, but not without battle scars.
Nobody knew I was on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, so no one (besides my mom) knew that I needed a different education. I’m not going to say “special education” here, because that’s not quite the case; it implies education at a slower pace, more of a remedial environment.
There were indeed areas in which I would have preferred a slower pace. Math comes to mind as a prime example. But there were areas in which I was bored to tears because I would’ve liked to have moved faster, or perhaps explored the subject matter a little more deeply.
Meh, life happens. We don’t always get what we want, and hindsight is always 20/20 and all that.
In a recent conversation with my mom, who is, over time, becoming more open, more accepting, and actually a viable other half of a conversation about this topic, she posed the question: “I wonder how much easier or better things might have been if we would have known then?”
My (genuine, truthful) response was that I had done some thinking about that, and although it might have been nice to know, my situation might not have been much different, and I don’t think I would want to go back.
The reality is that there is no answer to that question, because that was then and this is now and it’s impossible to go back in time. Therefore, any answer we might come up with is purely theoretical and speculative.
But let’s speculate for a moment, if for no other reason than I’ve got the benefits of insight and hindsight to draw from, and although I can’t (and won’t try to) speak for anyone else, there are autistic kids today whose parents might be battling with these questions. The future for those families is open; it hasn’t been written yet. And maybe, as an Aspergian/autistic adult, what I have to say about my own experience might benefit someone else out there.
I’ve written before (a few times) about my school experience in general, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I’d like to explore this topic from a slightly different angle.
Apparently, things have changed a lot in the educational realm since my childhood. There is new legislation; there are new requirements. Basically, accommodations must be made, but in the end, the emphasis is on mainstreaming where possible.
The legislation specifically stresses the idea of the “least restrictive environment” possible.
OK, that sounds well and good and utopian, but it’s also bureaucrat-style vague. When the rubber meets the road, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in “real life”?
It appears that what is considered a “least restrictive environment” is all about mainstreaming an autistic child into “regular” public school where possible, because of the (assumed) “benefits” of having a disabled child interact with non-disabled children.
I take (several) issues with this.
First, I need to preface what I’m about to say with some context:
- I’m in full awareness of–and support for–the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all, and that pretty much applies to any aspect of life, especially education. This means that what works for one may not work for another.
- I’m also in full support of efforts to help us lead fulfilling lives, and to be given every opportunity to do so. I’m also in full support of equal opportunities and equal access, and de-stigmatization of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum in general (but y’all probably knew that).
- I realize that I’m human and therefore biased and imperfect, so everything I write, naturally, gets filtered through my personal lens first.
- I don’t necessarily have any easy answers (at least, not yet–although who knows–maybe some will germinate by the latter stages of writing this post?), so my only goal at the moment is to offer one–and only one–perspective, and raise questions that I hope provoke thought or (constructive) discussion or whatever. 🙂
OK, onto my issues (grin)…
First, although I completely support the ideals of equal opportunity and mainstreaming when it’s in the best interest of the child/student, there’s something about the idea of legislating that a child/student be mainstreamed as much as possible. There seems to be a bit too much emphasis on the “ideal” of mainstreaming autistic kids; given the wording used,…
“The guidelines for the least restrictive environment dictate that a child with a disability “must be educated in the school he or she would attend if not disabled…”
…then it almost feels like the primary goal is to force the child/student into more interaction than they might be comfortable with, and make the child/student “look” more “normal” or pressure them into a more “normal” experience/existence than may be beneficial for them, and their comfort and learning seem to rank second.
Consider the wording used in another passage from another source…
“Removal from regular educational environments should only occur when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supports or services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
It feels to me like should the child/student need a more private or individual environment outside of a “regular” classroom, that the existing legislation is interpreted to imply that something’s “wrong” with them, that their “handicap” is “severe” enough to warrant an alternative environment, which only further stigmatizes them.
This uneasiness on my part may indeed be due to a reading comprehension issue on my part. But it could also be (and probably is?) due to my personal experience with having been mainstreamed.
I actually found the mainstream public school environment to be more restrictive. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the legislators and education professionals meant–I’m sure they had a different meaning in mind–but that doesn’t change the fact that that’s the effect it had on me.
The context in which I use the word “restrictive” is the held-back, mediocritized feeling I got while going through the “regular” program. I was not free to explore certain subjects in greater depth. I was not free to move faster through those I grasped more easily. I was not free to spend more time on a subject in which I was struggling. I was not free to ask all the questions I had, or to get all the one-on-one instruction I would’ve benefited from. I was not able to receive the positive reinforcement and more-detailed feedback I would have appreciated. And lastly, I was not free to be myself in such an environment; I was expected to conform, to fit in, to keep the same pace as everyone else. I was forced to work in groups when I did not want to and when it never benefited me. I was not free to take a break when I needed to, to take a nap, play, or get something to eat, and then come back to the learning process when my brain was ready.
Tell me–how is that kind of ultra-structured Play-Doh “Fun” Factory “least restrictive” to an Asperger’s/autistic kid like me?
For me, a least restrictive environment would have been what the Powers That Be consider the “most restrictive”–a homeschool environment, where it’s just my mom and myself, where I would have been free to learn at my pace and my rhythm, without the distraction or other interference from other kids constantly getting in the way of my learning.
Is promoting and encouraging a “least restrictive” mainstream school environment really all about getting us to socialize with other peers our own age? Is that what’s so important?
So is being stuck in a room with 20 or 30 other kids who are constantly judging you a less restrictive environment than being homeschooled, where I’m free to be myself and learn in a way that’s conducive to my wellbeing?
Like I mentioned, I’m all about equality and opportunity and all that, I promise. But in my particular situation, it worked against me. Sometimes I can’t help wondering what my life might have been like and how things might have turned out had I been able to receive an education in my ideal environment?
I know that it’s useless and futile to dwell on the past, to wonder what could have been If Only, because the fact is, it didn’t happen that way. Things turned out the way they did, and that’s that. That doesn’t mean my human nature (and my over-thinking, over-analyzing, systemizing nature) won’t try sometimes, though. And I’m through scolding my brain for what I think it should or should not do; if those thought-patterns come to visit, I’ll let them in for a cup of tea, to sit awhile and take a load off.
But when their welcome is worn out, I’ll gently-but-firmly show them the door. Because they don’t live here, and I’m not going to let them move in.
Maybe there’s a parallel universe out there, where the homeschooling laws have relaxed and options are open, where somewhere, somehow, I’m getting what I need. Or maybe there’s someone in this universe who needed this information at this particular time.
After all, everything happens for a reason, right? 😉