School can often be an intimidating place for just about anybody. But it is on the playgrounds and classrooms of our schools where we learn many life skills. Part of life's journey is learning how to cope with the unfamiliar.
One of the most daunting issues for children with autism is how to interact with classmates – unfamiliar territory that can prove overwhelming for all involved. While public awareness for autism has increased, understanding autism on a human level remains a work in progress.
Autism is a neurological disorder with a wide range of symptoms that often leaves educators and parents alike confused by its mysterious nature. Understanding the nature of autism can go a long way to alleviating some of the frustration felt. Despite efforts, it isn't always easy.
"There's nothing worse than getting a phone call from a school teacher asking you to go pick up your child because they were out of control. Many times I felt helpless. I often cried myself to sleep thinking I failed him," explained Mary DeMauro, whose son lives with the disorder. Eventually Matthew was prescribed Ritalin to help him keep focused in class, but this did not solve his problems. School was still having a negative impact on him. "They bug me a lot on the bus. I know I'm different."
Early diagnosis is crucial to the development of children with autism. If a specialist determines that a child has autism, it is believed that interaction in a normal social setting can go a long way to helping a child open up. Indeed, initiatives have been undertaken to integrate kids with autism in regular classrooms. What have been the results so far?
According to Tania Piperni, Autism Special Disorder consultant at the English Montreal School Board, it's not the kids from regular classes who have been a source of frustration, but the lack of proper resources. "It has become a normal and learned behavior for students to be helpful with kids with special needs. However, sometimes our resources need to be pooled more towards supporting and assisting the adults such as teachers and educators. Providing them with general information about autism and visual learning styles can be most helpful."
Jennifer Youakim, an elementary school teacher from the EMSB, further adds, "Never underestimate the power of empathy and compassion among children. They have a natural sense of understanding when confronted with special circumstances." Ms. Piperni views the experiment in a positive light. "I believe that the results of integration are working nicely for many of our students."
Some educators are not as comfortable with integration, and must therefore be taught strategies on how to deal with special needs students. Parents haven't always been all that accommodating either. "Raising a child with a neurological disorder is difficult enough, but having to face indifferent parents only makes it harder. No amount of explanation will suffice for some, unfortunately. They just don't want their kids in the same classroom with autistic kids," says Maria DeMauro.
Are parents' fears justified? Yes and no. If the proper support and resources are not made available in the class, then it is not effective for anyone – not the teacher, nor the students, and ultimately not the autistic child. In Quebec schools, for example, both trained childcare workers — special education technicians — and attendants with no special training are simultaneously taking care of autistic children.
"Attendants tend to use a 'baby-sitting' approach to their jobs, thus children don't advance as much as they could. In contrast, a special education technician will essentially treat the child as a regular member of the class and encourage independence," says Patrick Lortie, a childcare worker with the English Montreal School Board. This leads to a lack of consistency from one childcare worker to the next. For instance, it is entirely possible that a child with special needs gets the proper care from a SET one year, and a different exposure with a less trained attendant.
With two different approaches and no comprehensive plan, it leads to ineffective education. The problem is further compounded when there is a lack of communication between the teacher and childcare worker in the classroom. Mr. Lortie further added how frustrating it can be when a childcare worker is not treated as an equal, but more as, "help in the back of the classroom." This can lead to a strained relationship, which can ultimately affect the child. Everyone has to work together in order to obtain the best approach to meeting the child's needs.
It is only fair to point out that integrated classes are in their infancy stage and growing pains were bound to happen. Still, there are already positive and rewarding signs. "I've seen what integration can do. In an environment with proper collaboration, which I am in this year, two of my autistic students have made advances beyond anyone's expectations. This is incredibly rewarding, above all for the parents." Ms. Youakim agrees. "My students are always quick to help out and offer praise for any successes disadvantaged students have. It really is amazing to witness the wisdom and maturity children can show at times."
"We stuck by Matthew. We ploughed ahead. Now we're beginning to see positive changes in him. He still needs medication for other related problems, but we are all learning to cope with it," says Ms. DeMauro's as a gleam lit up in her eye. Integrating children with autism in mainstream classes is a challenging and important concept. Once again, as adults get lost in the shuffle of analysis, it is our children who are teaching us precious life lessons. The question is whether we are listening.