Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Normal Children Locked Inside in lockstep with the Common Core Standards

I was recently talking with another autism mom about the various "normal child locked inside" takes on autism that predominate in the popular media: those stories of miraculous communication breakthroughs that generally occur thanks to some sort of facilitated communication:

1. a therapist providing "light support under the wrist" as a child supposedly moves his finger independently over a keyboard;
2. a keyboard that for some reason has to be held up to the child's fingers and whose letters need for some reason to be read out loud to the child as he types;
3. a child who, even though he does type independently, does so not to converse spontaneously (at least as far as we ever see), but to spontaneously type out poems that may have been composed by someone else and reproduced from memory.

None of these breakthrough stories have been validated by any controlled study, for all the many times that studies have invalidiated their underlying methodologies.

"But is there any real harm in believing in these stories," the autism mom was wondering. After all, they give parents and therapists hope, and the kids, instead of being given up on, get lots of loving attention. Maybe the "facilitation" approaches overestimate the kids' abilities, she said, but surely that's better than the way things used to be, when nonverbal kids were completely written off as having no potential at all.

She has a point. And while I've harped on the downsides of the miracle cure stories--how they raise false hopes and deter therapies tailored to the child's actual potential--that actual potential is never fully knowable, and it is arguably worse to underestimate it than to overestimate it.

Our different perspectives as autism moms may, to some extent, reflect the differences in our children's educational placements. Her child has been mostly in private special education schools; mine has been mostly in mainstream classrooms. In private special education schools, there's less pressure to push students towards mainstream educational goals and it can be easiest to keep expectations low. In mainstream settings, especially under the Common Core, it's a completely different story. Except for 1-2% of the most cognitively disabled children, all students are expected to meet the same goals. And while the Common Core website acknowledges that some students will need accommodations, the only specific type of accommodations it mentions is assistive technology.

As I was discussing this with the other autism mom, it occurred to me that the Common Core's assumption that all but 1-2% of students should be held to the same standards basically assumes a "normal child locked inside" model of all but the most severely impaired kids. It assumes, in other words, that assistive technology--serving as a sort of facilitated communication--can unlock the potential of most students with special needs.

Yes, assistive technology can provide enlarged screens to visually impaired students, screen readers to blind students, keyboards to students with impairments in fine motor control, and speech-to-text to deaf students. It's great, in other words, in providing access to children whose brains are basically neurotypical inside. But no assistive technology can make Shakespeare (required under Common Core English Standards) accessible to those students with the deep impairments in linguistic comprehension that characterize many otherwise high functioning individuals with autism.

The notion that most kids can be accommodated to fit one-size-fits-all standards, then, is yet another downside to those miraculous, "normal child locked inside" stories of autism. Yes, they may keep people from giving up on kids prematurely. But they raise false hopes, they deter appropriate therapies, and they support the strangleholds of the Common Core Standards.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The actual effect of assuming that all but the most disabled 1–2% can meet the Common Core goals is lowering the standard for everybody until the goal can be met—so all kids get an education suited only for those in the 2–10%ile.

Katharine Beals said...

Lowering is one possible effect; pretense in another. There's a long history of pretending that special ed kids meet goals that they haven't actually (independently) meet. So I'd rephrase what you said as follows:

The actual effect of assuming that all but the most disabled 1–2% can meet the Common Core goals is pretending that the 2-nth percentile has met the goal, and lowering the standard for so that everyone in the (n+1)th percentile and above actually meets the standard.