In my hometown of Boise, Idaho, Governor Butch Otter recently told local newspapers that, “…education is the state’s top economic priority.” State education officials were also quoted as saying that they would be spending $22 million into training teachers to help with student instruction. This money is essentially to help children meet new Idaho Core Standards standards that will go into effect once the school term begins this fall. But considering a trial that just ended there, I wonder if that money could be spent to guarantee that all students in the school system receive adequate educations.
Two Idaho school districts, Boise and Meridian, have recently been in the news due to a federal case that recently took place involving a disgruntled mother who accused the school districts of not properly educating or preparing her autistic son, Matthew Abramowski, for the real world.
The jury sided with the school districts and the case was dismissed but watching the trial come to a conclusion and then seeing these reports about Idaho’s so-called commitment to education made me wonder if schools go at all beyond ensuring that disabled students meet the legal educational standards. Are they actively finding ways to truly guarantee, at least to the best of their abilities, that everyone receives equal educational opportunities? Matthew Abramowski was allowed extra time to do assignments and to reach his classrooms but there were no teachers creating individualized assignments or teaching him how to effectively communicate with his peers. While I am sure that the educators and administrators at these schools did as much as they could to help Abramowski reach his educational potential, it didn’t seem to be enough. This makes me wonder:
How can schools be better equipped to teach autistic students?
Oldfield, Amelia. “Music That Speaks Volumes To Children.” Learning Disability Practice 14.3 (2011); 9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Aug 2013.
This article details the ways in which music therapy can help people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. By engaging them in music by playing familiar tunes on the piano or letting the child’s hand fall onto a drum, these children learn to be less isolated and less upset by interruptions in routine. They also become more communicative which is helpful in furthering their social progress, which is where many people with ASD struggle. I think it is important to recognize that starting out with basics such as communication is fundamental in effectively improving autistic students’ school experiences.
Hohn, Brady. “Working With Special Kids.” Dance Magazine 83.8 (2009): 18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Aug, 2013.
This article is a great example of someone who saw a need for change and accomplished it herself. A dance instructor recognized that one of her students, who was autistic, could reap the benefits of dance (fine-motor skills, coordination, body and spatial awareness, strength, flexibility, ability to follow direction, and discipline) just as much as anyone else but needed to be taught in terms that they understood. She began a dance studio for autistic children where she gets more of a response from instructions like, “Run around the room and flap your arms up and down” than she would with more imagery-based language like “fly around the room like a butterfly.” Her adjustments are small but her objectives are the same. I believe this philosophy she be emulated in the school systems.
Stroud, Sara. “A New Way Forward.” T.H.E. Journal 36.10 (2009):18-22. ERIC. Web. 16 Aug, 2013.
It seems that the era of technological advances that we live in is particularly beneficial for autistic individuals. This article discusses the merits of a pilot computer program aimed at helping students with autism become more accustomed to how one operates in the mainstream population. The program hopes to “increase communication, expand social skills, and apply functional living skills.” Through an online forum these students can interact with one another and develop the social skills that are essential in day-to-day life. I think this would be a relatively inexpensive and highly effective ways to help autistic kids transition into mainstream educational facilities. Studies have shown that people with ASD tend to respond better to robots than humans at a young age; a computer program seems like a reasonable way to bridge the gap.
The Public Writing:
Dear Governor Otter,
While I commend your dedication to Idaho’s educational agenda, as well as your recognition that to ensure a more effective economy we need an educated workforce, I am concerned with the way these funds will be spent. I believe in educational equity, which, I am afraid, does not seem to exist in Idaho.
I am sure you are aware of Boise and Meridian school districts recently winning their case against the Abramowski family who purported that their son, Matthew, who has autistic spectrum disorder, was not adequately educated or prepared for the real world. I am not here to argue the ruling of his case but to bring to your attention some of the educational blind spots that may exist within Idaho’s school systems. It is not relevant to me that a federal court thinks that these school districts prepared Abramowski for the world or that all the standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act were met or that the teachers at these schools did their best. To me, this is just an example of the institution agreeing with itself. I am asking you to listen, on a personal level, to students with special needs (and those without disabilities as well, myself included—I am a “normal” student, by all perceived and accepted definitions of the phrase, yet I feel the system let me down) including Abramowski, who would tell you that the schools aren’t doing enough to guarantee equal learning experiences for those that have trouble learning within the classroom setting as it currently exists.
So, Governor, what I ask of you, is to do your best to shine a bright light at these blind spots, at these students who fall through the cracks, and promise to begin to make changes and allow accommodations for those who require them.
In regards to autism, there are several very simple tools that could be utilized to help these kids function more easily in mainstream classrooms. One example is to incorporate music therapy and dance into their learning plans. Those with ASD struggle with communicating with their peers because they perceive the world in much more literal terms. These methods help to engage, build confidence and communication which all have tremendous importance within classroom walls as well as the workforce that they will eventually (hopefully) enter.
Another method that could be used to help strengthen communication skills is a computer program called “Second Life.” This is a virtual-reality computer game created so that those with ASD can interact with each other in simulated environments that closely resemble the mundane yet essential everyday tasks that many of us do while taking for granted the fact that these skills do not come easily for all.
The last, and arguably the easiest safeguard against these blind spots is simply to educate the educators. One conference a year where professionals specializing in the education of autism can come into schools and help teachers and administrators understand what kinds of issues they may be dealing with and how to do so would be immensely helpful to everyone involved.
Please think about the benefits of everyone receiving the education they deserve and how you can help. You are in a position to do so much real good in the state of Idaho and all I ask is that you take advantage of that.