Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mainstreaming with a little twist

In recent article entitled "A School District That Takes the Isolation Out of Autism" the New York Times reports on how the Madison public schools "are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes."

Having seen from personal experience how mainstreaming can mean keeping a child out of special ed classrooms but not necessarily including him in regular classrooms, I was curious to read more about how well this program works. In fact, according to the article, Madison-style mainstreaming appears to mean more than full inclusion, with autistic kids included not only in regular classes, but also in after school activities.

But as I read, my skepticism perked up. Perhaps the more-than-fully-included children are like those at the Kinney Summer Camp in Philadelphia: kids whose autism is so mild that the neurotypical campers with whom they are intermixed think autism is a "tiny disability;" so mild that the reporter filing feel-good reports about the camp for our local radio station reports that it's hard to tell who is autistic and who isn't.

The one autistic student we learn about is a high school junior named Garner Moss, whose parents moved to Madison because they were tired of fighting for full inclusion in Tennessee. And, while the article doesn't quantify Garner's autism, all available clues suggest that it is at the "tiny" end of the spectrum.

He has at least one friend; he responds when people talk to him; he "rides the bus downtown to his father’s law office"; now 17, he will be "on his own [without an aide] in most classes, including English, chemistry and personal finance." As for his autism, it seems to be most apparent in his ability to remember where things are, his memorization of transportation routes, and his fascination with elevators.

Accompanying my son's special talents--math and engineering--and special interests--ceiling fans, Back to the Future, the number two--is a fascination with mischief making and getting a rise out of people. In class without an aide, he'd be totally out of control.

The most difficult behaviors of Garner's that appear in this article are a tendency to "explode from pent-up energy," and to "run away and collapse on the floor in despair if he had to change rooms." But these behaviors appear to have abated. The only current behavioral difficulties the Times reports on show up not in the classroom, but in Garner's extracurricular activities. His greatest problem in after-school track is that he can't tie his track shoes and that:
He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. “Garner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,” said Casey Hopp, his coach.
As for the swim team:
On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks it’s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. “They get angry,” the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. “Then they see it’s Garner, and he gets away with it. And that’s how practice begins.”
My son got kicked off the math team the third time he deliberately wrote on the whiteboard in permanent sharpie marker. After-school chess and soccer works out only if I attend also and keep a constant eye on him.

Here's how Garner's friend characterizes Garner: “He puts a little twist in our lives we don’t usually have without him.”

A little twist. Sounds suspiciously like "a tiny disability."

The harder question is how best to educate those who may be as intelligent as Garner is, but who put more than a little twist into the lives of their teachers and fellow students. I'm not sure that even Madison has figured out the answer to this one.

1 comment:

Chan Stroman said...

The NYT piece is close to home (figuratively and literally), so I'll simply say that I very much appreciate the points in this post. On the flipside, I'm also concerned about the child who's not "twice-exceptional" and whose "little twists" are camouflaged well enough (= "passing") that full-on mainstreamed placement is given as the only choice, ending up with four years spent quietly in the back of a classroom, with inadequate learning support, and with nothing to show for it at the end except as a notch for "inclusion". I am sorry to see the confusion of "least restrictive environment" (with placement to be determined on an individual basis consistent with the IEP) with "mainstreamed placement for all" go, er, mainstream.