Mar 29, 2011

A Parent's Experience In Los Angeles - The Impact Of Teachers On Her Autistic Son's Education

Dana is the parent of an autistic child who attends a public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She has an advocacy and discussion site on
My son, Michelangelo, is eight years old, in the third grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has what I call “middle of the road” autism. He does not throw tantrums but experiences frequent anxiety that can shut him down. His shut-downs occur at school but do not occur often at home.  
Life has been up and down in school for Michelangelo, and through all of the challenges one thing I am sure of is that not all educators -- including teachers, principals, everyone in the field -- are equal in what they do for children, and it’s wrong to criticize or intimidate parents who are willing to point this out. I have been disappointed and frustrated that for three years in a row Michelangelo has not had something so basic as a good teacher or principal. 
Pre-school and kindergarten were great. His teachers just seemed to get it. They knew how to teach Michelangelo without taking his challenges out on him or on us. But then everything changed. First grade was terrible. We tried to get him into a high-functioning autistic program but were denied, and he was placed with a senior teacher who admitted to me at Thanksgiving time that she had never read his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which by law has to be followed according for students with needs like my son’s.
“Why read it?” she asked. “They are all the same." A similar attitude came from the top, where the administration tried to keep him out of the holiday program because he covered his ears, and this made him "stick out like a sore thumb." The teacher thought he had cognitive issues and I held firm to what had been diagnosed, repeating again and again that his were behavioral issues.  I insisted that they test him and it was confirmed that he was as capable of learning as any other intelligent child. 
The next year, his second grade teacher introduced herself by saying, "Just so you know, I'm best friends with his first grade teacher." She spent the rest of the year ignoring my son and his aide took over.  His aide worked hard but when my son was bullied by another student, the school's principal made me feel terrible that I complained.  My husband and I were called “ignorant.” 
We started Michelangelo at a new school in the third grade, hoping this would be the year his teachers would be more like those he’d had in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. But his teacher of twenty-five years claimed to never have had an autistic kid in any of her classes and had no idea what to do. While I appreciated her honesty, we spent most of the year trying to get the speech and other resources he needed, to no avail.  I hit my breaking point when I found out that they were sending him to the library for an hour each day instead of providing the resource services that he needed to make up for the fact that his teacher wasn't teaching him. We enrolled him in an alternative independent study program, deciding that at least this way we could be in control and know he is learning. Our son is not challenged in a separate special education class and the only way he can survive in a general education class is with a good teacher.  Unfortunately, he didn't get any of those during the most critical foundational years for building basic skills.  
I am a huge believer that autism is not something to be cured, but it still needs more understanding. I know having a few bad apples doesn’t mean we can blame all teachers who are working hard. And we do have to tell the stories about what the many good teachers are doing in schools. 
But we also have to share the other stories, stories like my son’s. No parent should be intimidated or criticized for voicing them -- because they are happening, and because we can and have to make these experiences stop. Autism is not easy on any child, family or educator. But when kids like my son all have good teachers and principals, we won’t have to tell stories like this anymore.

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