As the number of children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) rises, so do the frustrations regarding the limited public school options for this special population of students. Sadly, most school districts have not been able to keep up with the demands of special needs students and their parents. It is now common knowledge that children with untypical neurological development cannot easily be placed into conventionally neuro-typical classrooms. The stimulation, pace and curriculum do not match what these kids really need from their educational environments. More parents are wondering which is better for their autistic child, separation or inclusion.
As a response to this void in need, new schools are being formed for autistic children. Sometimes, these educational centers are founded by parents who gave up on the public school system and decided to provide an improved option for their own children and others.
One of those new schools is Victory Academy near Portland, Oregon. Tricia Hasbrook and Thea Schreiber opened its doors in 2009. It is a private school with small classes. All the usual subjects are taught there, and all of the students have been diagnosed with ASD.
Both Hasbrook and Schreiber have autistic sons. Both families had difficulties finding appropriate educational fits for the boys. Hasbrook points out that when teaching autistic children it is important to take the time to break down tasks into small, doable parts. There are instructional formulas that have been proven to work well, and a lot of positive reinforcement is required.
Hasbrook goes on to say that because the world strikes these kids as chaotic, Victory Academy teaches skills revolved around sensory regulation and social cognition. She makes the acknowledgment that many of their behaviors and interaction styles are not going to ever change. That is why it is so vital for the teachers to let the students be themselves, meet and accept them as they are and offer them the necessary tools for the pursuit of their own goals.
At Victory Academy, students with ASD are given a safe environment where they can fully express themselves. Hasbrook believes that offering a separate educational setting for ASD students is a meaningful and amazing approach to educating these special people.
Ari Ne’eman is the head of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. He does not agree with the idea of separate schools for autistic children. He believes that inclusive schooling is the better option for individuals with ASD. In this way, they are not looked at as being separate from the rest of society. Ne’eman does understand, however, the struggle that parents experience. There is a desire to establish a world that the child can feel at home in while they are dealing with outside pressure to accept that the real world is not the ideal.
The aspect that is sorely lacking in public schools, even in inclusive settings, is the sheer patience required to teach autistic children. A mother in Seattle recently commented on the angst that she sees other adults go through when listening to her 11-year-old autistic son talking. She said that conversing with him is much like talking to an old man. He is slow and deliberate with his words. The mother will observe other adults as they try desperately to not betray their impatience and lack of focus when talking with him. They try to finish his sentences, change the subject and even distract him. Sadly, he then gets frustrated because no one is listening to him. They seem to spend so much of their days in a hurry, that slowing down for a couple of moments is simply too much to bear.
This is why schools like Victory Academy are so important in this conversation. One mother whose son attends the school said that there is empathy, innovation, patience and love offered there to every single student. While this is often an attractive option, some parents are still uncomfortable with separating their children from the mainstream school setting.
Ultimately, the child and the way he or she reacts to social settings, should decide which option is better for them. When a parent removes their own desires and expected outcomes from the equation, the choice often becomes clearer. It is important for parents to remember as they ponder this, separating does wonders for many autistic students, while inclusion works better for others. A father of a 14-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome once said, “These kids are like snowflakes, so do not expect to find one answer to any question regarding their well-being.”
By Stacy Lamy