America prides itself on being way ahead of the rest of the world in its treatment of people with special needs. And sure, the U.S. probably has more accessible buildings, studded curb cuts, and special ed support services per capita than any other place on earth. More therapists, therapy rooms, weighted vests, preferential seating, FM-systems, enlarged screens, sign language interpreters, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, assistive communication, IEP meetings, extra time on tests, offices of disability services, etc., etc.. The U.S. can probably also boast pre-eminence in pro-special needs lip-service--all that public advocacy, all that sensitivity training, all those feel-good articles, and all those Disability Studies programs.
But when it comes to people with High Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, we fall far short in a number of key ways. In particular, we’ve erected a number of uniquely American barriers to productive employment.
First, there’s the uniquely American “college for all” movement, which, combined with our growing obsession with credentialing, means that more jobs and vocational training programs than ever require college degrees—or at least strongly prefer applicants who have such degrees—including jobs and training programs that in other countries require only a high school diploma, if that.
Then there’s college itself. In most other countries, even if you do go to college, you don’t have to take courses outside your area of specialization. As a result, if you’re a biophysics major who can’t write a decent literature or history paper, you can still be confident you’ll get your degree.
But here in the US, getting a decent job means succeeding in a variety of different courses in college, including college English and various other humanities classes. And, for those on the autistic spectrum, such courses are frequently areas of disproportionate weakness.
College-level distribution requirements, in theory, need not be fatal to a bright, moderately autistic student. At Canadian colleges, I’ve been told, there are English courses specifically designed for computer science majors: courses that differ from those for literature majors. And even though American colleges do not tailor their English classes in this way, an American autistic student could, theoretically, satisfy an English requirement with a course in expository essay writing as opposed to one in the 19th century novel.
But current trends in American education, extending now all the way into college, are making the required courses less and less hospitable to autistic kids—even at schools that have a relatively small number of distribution requirements and profess to be autism friendly.
For details on that, stay tuned for Part II.
Sunday, February 28, 2016