We've just completed J's high school application (we live in a city where all decent public high schools have selective admissions) and, in the process, have spent many hours considering what the perfect high school would look like.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The ideal school for kids like J would involve what some schools in other school districts are smart enough to do: it would concentrate all the students with high functioning autism, and all the experts in high functioning autism, in one school. (And there would be experts in high functioning autism). Those experts, in turn, would help the regular classroom teachers become experts in autism.
But there'd also be classrooms specifically for children with high functioning autism--and here's where I part ways with those who consider the least restrictive educational environment to be, by definition, the one offering the maximum exposure possible to typical classmates and to the typical curriculum, and moving towards this "least restrictive environment" to be, ideally, the goal for all children. Some high functioning autistic kids, like my son, for all their academic strengths, and for all their ability to sit through it all and get the work done, aren't sufficiently engaged (and sometimes aren't sufficiently well-behaved) in regular classrooms to thrive in them. They tune out, act up, and may end up being regularly asked to leave, supervised elsewhere in the building by someone who is neither an expert in education, nor an expert in high functioning autism. Wouldn't it be nice if the school offered academic classrooms specifically for them?
Here's what such a classroom would look like: teacher-centered (the teacher: highly trained both in autism, and in whatever subject s/he is teaching); tons of structure (inspired by the most effective therapies for autism, like ABA); systematically presented, analytically challenging material with a focus on math, science, engineering, and computer programming (think Temple Grandin); and independent work (all group environments being restricted to highly structured, expertly-supervised, social skills-building activities). Reform Math, writer's workshop, social studies (as opposed to straight-up history), and the sort of project-based learning that prevails everywhere else would all be avoided like the plague.
Were a school to offer such a classroom, there'd be an additional perk for all concerned. Once parents of typical children hear that this classroom actually exists, some of them might decide that it offers the least restrictive educational environment for their kids as well. Those children would be welcomed in, and, while they're being educated as never before, also serve as social role models for their autistic classmates.
Ah, isn't it nice to fantasize? But in our next installment, we will return to reality and discuss what the best of the actually existing high schools looks like around here--for high functioning autistic kids, and possibly for others as well.