When my child was six years old, the public school teachers said that they could not deal with him as he was too disruptive. He would not get off the bus in the morning. He would not come back in from recess with the other children. He always wanted to sit away from the other students off by himself. So, they pushed for me to send him to a school out of district … and forever to my shame, I listened.
Unbeknownst to me, the special school they sent him to locked him in a closet. They would sometimes do this all day, for several days a week.
They didn’t call it a closet, they called it the “crisis room;” a place for him to go when he was upset. It was a gray, cement room, about the size of a small closet, sound proofed, with no windows, and no furniture nor blankets. They would lock the door so he couldn’t get out. There was a small slit window very high on the door, but he was not nearly tall enough to see out … and the person “watching” him on the other side wouldn’t be able to see if him if he sat on the floor … and since he would be left in there all day, he would normally sit on the floor.
They left a six year old child in a cold, gray cement room for hours at a time, for all day. And he would cry and whimper on the other side of the door.
After he started going to this school, he would flip out when I would try to put him on the bus in the morning. Scream. Cry. Kick.
I started thinking that his symptoms of autism were worse then I originally thought, maybe the teachers were right … so I caved when they recommended restraining him on the bus. Looking back, I know that any child would scream, cry, and fight if they were going to be locked in a small cell all day. But at the time, I had no idea, so I helped pin him down to put the restraints on him … my goodness, remembering this is making me cry. How will he ever forgive me? How can I forgive myself for not knowing? Please, if you read this, let other parents or people with autistic children know, they have to be careful.
He was at that school for four years before I saw the cell they were putting him in. Four years of him becoming more depressed, his symptoms continually getting worse. He never went back to that school after I the day I first saw the crisis room. That was three years ago … but I still have problems with the school he is in now.
I am not advocating spending more money on these children, but I am advocating changing the way we treat them. We need a shift in the way we view these children and the way that we try to educate them. My son still has problems in school, and for a child who LOVES to learn, this is wrong. He will pick up a book about astronomy and learn the planets. Pick up a book about chemistry and memorize the periodic table. Why is a child like this terrified to go to school? Why is a child like this constantly afraid of looking stupid? Why is a child who loves to learn always testing so poorly?
The answer is my son, and probably many other children with autism, do not fit the patterns of “regular” or “normal” children. Their needs are different. They learn differently. Unfortunately, it does not matter how much money you spend on a program to educate them (the school that locked him in the closet was VERY expensive), what matters is a program that is designed to bring out their best qualities. To be fair, many of these specialized programs have spent an incredible amount of effort catering to the child’s needs … but they do this from a negative approach. They focus on the negative aspects of the child’s persona. For example, if a child screams when people are too close to him, then they set the child further apart from other children. Or if the child cannot follow a large group and will start acting up, then they will put them in a smaller group of children. But these programs are all reactionary. They react to the child’s negative behavior … I have yet to see or hear of one that focuses on bringing out and catering to these children’s strengths.
I am sorry if this article sounds overly critical of our public school systems … there are many teachers, as well as those in the health industry that are very compassionate and really care about these children. But we have a LONG way to go. What happened to my son should never have happened. When I first saw the tiny cell they were putting my child in, I thought of the One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was completely shocked that things like this still happen in our society!
So my recommendation to parents of autistic children is to start to ask the hard questions of the school before you enroll your child in the program:
How will my child be handled when he is unable to comply with your direction?
What if he becomes unregulated and starts to become physical? (You can qualify this statement by saying that he/ she is normally not physical)
Do you ever attempt to lower the sensory input of a child who is escalated? If so, what is the maximum amount of time a child would stay in the lowered sensory environment? (So you know, if you search the web, you will find that there have been studies that have shown that lowered sensory input will help calm an autistic child. These studies mention about 20 to 30 minutes. There is currently NO EVIDENCE that show leaving a child in a sensory deprived environment for hours has any therapeutic effect whatsoever. Have the school put in writing that the child will not be subjected to this type of restraint for more than 30 minutes)
If the child responds negatively to the lowered sensory input, what other methods will be used to handle the child until he/ she has calmed down?
Are there any other methods used to handle children when they are escalated that we have not discussed?
Are any of the methods that we discussed controversial?
My child is really good at ________. What do you do that encourages and brings out his strengths? (Example: memorization, interested in dinosaurs)
What methods do you use to find out the child strengths? The child likes? How do you then incorporate these into their programs?
If it was determined that my child benefited and remained calm with lots of exercise, is your program flexible enough to then provide him with some type of enjoyable exercise every day?
My child has a hard time with ______. Are there aspects of your program that will expose this weakness? (Example: my son hates being tested on information he was never taught, but there are state wide tests that they keep giving to him. I want to know what the school is going to do to make this time easier for him. Are they going to let me know before they start testing him? Are they going to give him special treats?)
Finally, don’t ever let the school system or teacher’s bully you into accepting a program that you don’t feel will fit. As a single working parent, I needed to send my son somewhere, and I let the bureaucrats convince me that my son was problematic and that there were only a couple of places that could possibly take him. One or the other, I had to choose. I later looked on line to find THIRTY-FIVE school systems within a 15 mile radius that would take children with autism at his grade level. So if they try to pressure you, go on line and do your own research to find what is out there.