MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE CLASSROOM
It’s as important to know the myths and misconceptions of autism as it is the facts and realities. What I will share with you here are from actual experiences of parents I have interviewed around the country.
-This child can’t learn the material or is incapable of learning the material. Children with autism don’t react to or relate with the world around them the same as other children. This makes it too easy to underestimate their learning capabilities and for educators to just give up on them. My own son was accused of this because of his outbursts and behavior that made it seem like he wasn’t paying attention. Later in the year he showed them all that he not only absorbed the material and heard what was said, he understood it perfectly. Erratic behavior is not proof of inability to learn. For that matter, autistics are well known for absorbing everything around them. But they can’t sort it as fast as others because they literally take in too much at a time to do so. This factor of autism is murder on their attention span because literally every single thing in the room is demanding their attention at the level of a fire alarm. If all your teachers could be armed with this information, we can give these kids a better chance to make it through school.
-I just don’t see autism in your child. This is one that has frustrated many struggling parents and seems dismissive to them. You may see a hundred children with autism and not even know it. First of all, it’s not the school staff’s place to judge medical diagnosis. Every child with autism is different and there’s often other co morbid conditions that take affect on the child’s behavior. It’s a spectrum and behaviors can be affected all across it. I’ve had teachers suggest that my son is too social to have autism. What is missed with that statement is that our autism kids will be an extreme of either direction. Those that are in the extreme of social attempts still have trouble with social boundaries and cues. They want to be social but try too hard and wind up forcing people away as a result. It’s important that staff not worry about judging diagnosis (especially when they aren’t doctors) and concentrate on what will help the child learn.
-This child is a brat or a nuisance. If staff understand how our kids are affected by their conditions at all, they won’t dismiss them as just brats. Our kids aren’t just trying to learn a curriculum but how to live through a medical condition as well. Imagine trying to learn how to juggle and ride a bike at the same time. Separately you can expect success in a given period of time, but if your body and mind force you to do both at once it will get frustrating in a hurry. That’s life for our kids on the spectrum, constant frustration because things they try to do never come out as intended. Then they get more frustrated because someone is yelling at them or scolding them when it was a struggle in the first place. That’s not to say they should never be scolded but it will take practice to separate the behaviors that require a little healthy scolding and the ones that don’t. A rule of thumb is to apply to behavior that directly affects others. Hitting another child or acting out against another child is inappropriate and should still be dealt with immediately. Getting frustrated over a spelling paper is inappropriate but not hurting anyone. It doesn’t require the same amount of discipline or handling. It is where understanding and some sensitivity to the child’s struggles can go a long way.
-This child needs to be institutionalized. If ever a phrase should be banned from escaping a teachers lips to our autism families, it’s that one. This is a medical decision and should be made with extreme care. Autism kids don’t need to be locked in a cell, they already are inside of their own poor heads. Why would we want to compound that pain? In my Jr high years in Lincoln, Nebraska I was branded as retarded and made to stay in a hospital for 30 days for evaluations. While they still didn’t diagnose my autism, they did discover I was anything but retarded. It was not my school’s place to judge me medically. In all fairness however, autism can be a masking condition that is good at covering itself up. That’s why we need to apply this new level of understanding for all our teachers and staff.
-It’s just poor parenting. Autism is a proven disorder and has nothing to do with how a child is “parented”. As it is, parenting an autism child is very challenging. School is often far more structured than at home and doesn’t involve the same needs as running a household. Autism parents have to take their child to the store and appointments and be prepared for spontaneous behavior at any waking moment. Embarrassing explosive meltdowns could happen for just about any reason, but mostly reasons “invisible” to the bystander. Daily routines that most take for granted can be long drawn out episodes and require vigilance and patience to get through. Staff need to consider that they do not see but a fraction of these children’s lives. They also need to remember that these are special needs children and parenting is more of a challenge than with an average child.
-This child is unhealthy or diseased. Autism is a disorder, not a disease. It is not communicable though known to be hereditary. High functioning autism children can run and play just as well as any child. They can grow and mature, though maturity takes longer. Calling them unhealthy or diseased is inappropriate and hurtful to the relations with the child’s family.
-This child is supposed to have genius ability. Not all autism children have a savant ability, while such is popular in the movies. What is common is for them to become so enthralled with a given subject that they can’t let go of it. They may become “little professors” on that subject. They may be able to tell you trivial information that almost no one would even notice on the subject. They may even try to apply that subject to everything they say or do (whether it fits or not). However, that does not constitute genius, just intense interest that gets them “stuck in a rut”. People with autism are extremely diverse, though there are mannerisms that are common amongst them.
-This child will never leave home or be able to do anything on his own. This is an impossible forecast. It’s also highly inappropriate. It suggests that a child with autism will never mature or grow. It’s true that low functioning autism children may need care for their entire lives, but it’s not true for every child and certainly cannot be forecast based on the child’s condition in elementary school (for the high functioning). Children with autism go through phases of maturity and growth. They just take longer and have more difficulty. Not only is it wrong to say this to parents (refer to idea of not judging or diagnosing above), but the children can pick up on it as well. I remember being labeled as ‘retarded’ and I remember teachers in more than one state or district who told me point blank that I would never amount to anything. Remember that these children pick up more than they show. It’s psychologically damaging and hinders self esteem which does hinder their personal growth. With proper support and care, many of our children will grow, mature, and be able to lead lives on their own. It’s important for this to take place in our schools.
So, from this we can take that high function children with autism:
-CAN learn the material, even if they don’t show it right away.
-are diverse and will show symptoms differently in their behaviors.
-is NOT just a brat or spoiled child, rather at the mercy of their conditions.
-does not require being locked up just because they have autism.
-is not the result of bad parenting.
-is not diseased or unhealthy just because they have autism.
-is not always a genius.
-may mature and grow, even if it doesn’t look like it at the time.