The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘school district

No (therapy) dogs allowed?

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Photo by Olivia Bucks, The Oregonian

There are two issues to the story I’m about to present. Autism is clearly one of them, but the other is something we’ll likely hear more about as more parents consider getting a therapy dog to assist their autistic children: are they truly service animals or well-trained pets?

The most recent episode is covered by The Oregonian. An autistic boy with severe complications, which includes attempting to hit other classmates and teachers at the elementary school he attends, gets assistance from a therapy dog his parents got for him. Madison, a two-year-old German Shepherd, mitigates the boy’s symptoms by stopping him when he attempts to run away (a common side effect caused by a lack of environmental awareness), and lying on him when he suffers an emotional meltdown (also common because they often lack knowledge on less violent alternatives to express emotional distress). However, the Hillsboro School District won’t allow Madison to go to school with his owner, saying the boy is doing fine on his own.

The refusal to allow Madison in school has led to the U.S. Justice Department investigating a complaint from Disability Rights Oregon that could affect other families seeking therapy animals for assistance. The school district argues that it’s a matter of process, saying there is no need for a service animal if there’s a student doing well in school. Therapy dogs aren’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but are growing in popularity. Still, fully-trained dogs helping autistic students in public schools are rare. The Autism Society of Oregon says that school districts will fall back on basic policies because therapy dogs are new territory for them.

From a social perspective, it’s a two-pronged pitchfork. It’s not unusual for neurotypicals to go with the simplicity route. They don’t hold a vendetta against the disabled, but they sometimes lack an understanding of that community because they don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. The school district was also concerned about allergies and students who fear dogs, but the Hillsboro superintendent dismissed them as primary issues. The story’s lead would contradict what the school district is suggesting, and if that’s indeed true, the school district’s statement also raises questions about what constitutes “doing well” in school. Is he doing well academically, or doing well because he’s removed from a mainstream setting where other students would be at risk from the boy’s behaviors. One solution to resolve this dispute is adopting what the Beaverton School District did and have the dog go to school with the boy on a trial basis, making observations on how the boy behaves with the dog versus without him.

Human rights aren’t the only issue here. The story also reflects how people define service animals. Parents who use therapy dogs for children with autism would most likely claim that therapy dogs are service animals, along with the trainers who send therapy dogs to families once training is completed. It gets murky with everyone else, and opinions are reached on mostly personal levels versus scientific ones. The place where Madison was trained, 4 Paws for Ability, says the German Shepherd received 500 hours of training before he was assigned to his family in Oregon.

The article presents some new ingredients that will likely be used as the autism debate evolves. The story does more than cite arguments from both sides of the story. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have learned that Oregon has dealt with this issue before in the Portland area. Don’t be surprised if you see a similar story appear sometime in your local newspaper or TV station; it’s a fresh look that avoids rehashing what most reporters have already told us about autism. Even I haven’t considered the debate about service animals and autism because I never required the use of a therapy dog, but this story shows us that civil rights in the autism community aren’t limited to humans.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 13, 2010 at 11:16 am

Fifth grade autistic boy charged with felony

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Photo by Carole Reynolds, used in examiner.com

A colleague of mine alerted me to this article that was published last week in examiner.com. It’s an editorial from Robin Hansen for the online magazine’s special education section. She does a fair amount of reporting though, which focuses on a rare felony charge against an Arkansas boy who isn’t even a teenager yet.

Zakhquery Price was charged by two school staff members who were injured while attempting to restrain him following an incident last October. His grandmother argues that the incident was caused by his school failing to accommodate suggestions in his Individual Education Plan (IEP, used to help students who are mentally and/or physically disabled progress in the school system. His hearing is scheduled for January 12th, and a psychologist hired by the school recommends having Zak in a mental hospital.

You can tell the writer doesn’t have a journalistic background as the article is sprinkled with spelling and other grammatical errors. However, writing as more of a columnist, she clearly takes the family’s side, arguing that Zak hasn’t been educated or treated properly (according to the article, his IQ is 68). We also only hear one side of the story from Zak’s grandmother. I’ve alluded to he-said/she-said stories before; it’s almost impossible to know if we’re being told the truth from human sources alone as relatives or friends sometimes defend their own, even if indisputable evidence links the accused person to a crime. However, if Zak’s grandmother is telling the truth about what happened to her grandson and the school he was enrolled in, this would be the latest example of neurotypicals acting oblivious to their environment. From an anecdotal perspective, people on the outside kept autism hidden from view even at the turn of last decade (I’m starting to date myself now). These types of stories often attract more attention in the news than school employees working to improve the lives of kids who would otherwise be cast off as useless. Filing criminal charges against a kid who possibly had no knowledge on appropriately expressing emotional frustration is an indicator that employees at the school would rather not deal with him instead of assisting him, but this is pure speculation. Since his grandmother appears to be the primary caregiver for Zak, one element that many readers are likely wondering is why his parents aren’t quoted. No one can truly say why, but it would be disturbing to find out his parents have abandoned him.

As the GLBT community continues to discover that ignorance and intolerance still exist in their fight for equal rights, this article shows that autism isn’t immune to the ills of social justice either.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm