The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘public school’ Category

Autism safety not “in the bag”

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To those who celebrated, I hope your Christmas was a blessed one. I also wish the same for a nine-year-old autistic boy at the center of a Louisville, Kent. school controversy when word got out that staff members at Mercer County Intermediate School stuffed Christopher Baker inside a duffel bag for allegedly acting out on Dec. 14. Chris is enrolled in a special needs program there.

The Kentucky Department of Education has no laws regarding restraint or seclusion, although an autistic Georgetown University student started a petition calling to fire the school employees responsible. The online petition had over 700 signatures at the publication date.

Thankfully, I can say I was never placed in a duffel bag when I was in school, or I’d probably be at the center of a lawsuit. However, controversies over how the education system handles autistic children still appear in mainstream news cycles periodically. With no uniform system in place for training on autistic students, coupled with varying levels of intervention behaviors chosen by education specialists, such actions are theoretically possible if educators are unprepared.

The biggest difficulty with the lack of a streamlined system are public school employees who do not understand the symptoms of autism. This does not suggest that all of them will choose actions that compromise the safety of students, but if their patience is low, they will be more likely to exhibit an impulsive emotional response.

Bruce Schreiner of the Associated Press published the story, which was then syndicated on Huffington Post. The story is largely a reaction piece that interviews Christopher’s mother (the school cited confidentiality laws and refused to comment on the incident specifically), the Georgetown student who started the petition to fire school employees, and a former teacher who blogs about autism issues.

Generally, controversial stories revolve around what two parties are thinking, as reporters either on deadline or lacking journalistic intuition consider getting both sides of a story satisfactory. Schreiner goes one step deeper, researching the larger public’s response to the incident. While more sources may not change the tone of a “he-said she-said” story, but just as surveys decrease their margin of error when their sample size increases, quoting subjects not involved in the center of an altercation provides a better consensus of the situation’s brevity. As a result, readers will more likely get the idea that what the school did to Chris would violate rules or laws in other states.

Obtaining outside sources also develops a well-rounded story. When facing controversial topics, the “defendant” is often hesitant to speak either in an attempt to hide guilt or to control damage. Reporters shouldn’t be “out to get them,” but having a neutral go-to source to spell out an event’s significance will offer analysis or details that will likely be skipped by both the accuser and defender.

Odds suggest a follow-up story will be found on Huffington Post or the Associated Press if Mercer County School reaches a decision, but until then, the story highlights what all of us could add when taking the effort to expand the source pool.

Autistic students become “teachers”

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Justin Evans, with assistance from an autism aide at Colfax Elementary School, highlights his shared interests with non-autistic classmates during a presentation. Photo by Jason Bridge.

OK, so adults still teach full-time, but Michael Aubele of Valley News Dispatch found three autistic students at Colfax Upper Elementary School who shared their autism spectrum disorder with their classmates. The school, along with other school districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley in Pennsylvania, are involved in sponsoring events for Autism Awareness Month, which wraps up this Saturday.

The three autistic Colfax classmates, just like almost every other student, were nervous about their presentations because their lectures broke traditional routines (autistics are very routine-oriented). One student used an iPad to showcase his interest in Dr. Seuss, and his autism support teachers regularly use the iPad to communicate with him. Their fellow classmates embraced the learning lessons because they increased their overall understanding of autism spectrum disorder. One student interviewed by Aubele said she wasn’t aware of autism’s range of severity prior to the presentations.

Aubele’s story is short and doesn’t quote any sentences when he refers to his interviews, but give him credit for finding a pair of fellow students to gauge reaction to the information shared by their autistic classmates. Interviewing children is tougher than adults and even teens who are subjects of many other autism stories, so not seeing many quotes from them isn’t a surprise, no matter what restrictions were placed on story length. Complicating such an interview is the story’s subject; adults have spent hours upon hours and are still dumbfounded on many facets of autism. Now throw in a much younger face with much growing to do. Fortunately, as Aubele shows, no hairs need pulling when approaching kids for interviews. Stick to the simple questions, such as what they knew before and after a presentation and what they thought about it.

Although surmising a deadline for this story isn’t achievable, Aubele could have played up his third-person narrative with the autistic students and their classmates to a greater extent. How much did the autistic classmates believe their peers understood their disability? What goals did they have for the presentations? How well did they get along with classmates before they opened themselves up in this fashion? The story’s short length doesn’t allow much development for such ideas. However, Aubele’s story illustrates the reduced fear of sharing sensitive material about students that can increase their vulnerability. The mentality when I attended elementary school was silence in hopes that no one would think the disability exists. Unfortunately, autism and other disabilities don’t work that way. Gauging what would be different had I attended in this social environment is impossible due to too many changing variables, but Aubele’s piece could ease worries other parents or teachers may still have about revealing differences.

Autism needs growing faster than available resources

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A kindergartner turns away during a read along in class. Photo by Diandra Jay

News about cash-strapped school districts has landed on television and newspapers for the last few years following The Great Recession, exacerbating issues the districts are facing within their student bodies. They have no immunity against autism, and as Kelly Puente of the Press-Telegram highlights, the state of California is implementing what they can with limited resources as more autistic students enroll in their schools. California’s Department of Education estimates 60,000 children in their schools are autistic, with over 1,000 serving in the Long Beach Unified School District, the primary coverage area for the Press-Telegram.

While limited funding increases the difficulty of adapting to rising autistic students, districts like the LBUSD are far from helpless. Previously relying on outside agencies to provide services for autistic children, the district now offers resources that include the Long Beach Early Autism Program which begins before a child turns 3. The program helps parents and the district construct and Individualized Education Program (IEP) while the child enrolls in preschool and special day classes. While such amenities cost the LBUSD $91 million, nearly 20 percent of their overall budget, they say doing so saves money long-term by going in-house versus using outside agencies (my post on Ken Salazar’s granddaughter highlighted some reasons for the high cost of autism services).

The state of California formed an Autism Advisory Committee in 2007 as a call to action to meet the challenge of educating autistic children. A teaching authorization for autistic students was added to special-education teachers, and the LBUSD now requires an authorization to teach autistic students for all special education teachers working with children who have mild to moderate disabilities.

Although Puente’s main plot is the course of action pursued by the local district her paper serves, she makes the story easier to relate by including an insight from an autistic student inside the Long Beach district who is prone to mental breakdowns but excels in his middle school classes. Blake Wesselman serves as the springboard for the story’s focus, representing one face of the 60,000 inside the country’s most populous state. While Wesselman’s mother holds hope that her son can lead a normal life, Puente bookends the story emphasizing such “normal” things, including his proficiency in math, his passion for sports, heavy metal and Guitar hero, even mentioning Blake’s girlfriend in the story. I doubt Puentes and Temple Grandin have met face-to-face, but Puente has taken Grandin’s advice about promoting the strengths of autistic people, as such strengths aren’t exclusive to them or non-autistic people.

Using Blake’s profile as a bookend benefits the story beyond illuminating a success figure in the schools, his story reinforces the effectiveness of the LBUSD’s autism programs. While no doubt was cast in the story on the school district’s programs, using a student who was more severely impaired or just started receiving attention in one of their programs could unintentionally communicate an ulterior message in Puente’s story. Factoids about autism awareness month and the disability itself are included to clue in readers who may not be aware of either element.

Puente’s reporting balances the increase in support for autistic students in California schools with ongoing obstacles, allowing her sources to promote why autism services require continuous support. A follow-up certainly isn’t out of the question with the always-changing nature of education. Whether that’s through more success stories like Blake’s, new programs offered by school districts, or the impact current programs have on students is unknown, but the story’s positive nature will at least offer a nice reprieve for readers growing weary of stories warning of a metaphorical apocalypse.