Friday, November 25, 2011

School Discipline and Autism

We face a very difficult decision this holiday season.  Matthew has been having difficulties in his current school, which are significant enough that we now need to decided whether to keep Matthew in his current school (which has great academics and where he spends his days in gen ed and has an autism classroom for support) or move him to another school (where the academics are not as good, but there is a specific Aspergers classroom for support).

This decision is several months in the making.  Although Matthew has an aide assigned to him for much of the day, attitudes have changed at his school.  We originally went to this school because they were very accepting of kids with autism, and worked with me to help him in any way possible.  But once fourth grade started, the attitudes changed.  Instead of recognizing the very real disability that impairs his judgment and social functioning, it seems as if the current teacher believes that his behaviors are "intentional" and that he is a "bully" who can and should change his behaviors.  They threaten discipline not related to his IEP and behavior plan, like appearing before the IAC (school disciplinary committee), even though the principal admitted that if he was ESE, she wouldn't do it...except that, like it or not, Matthew is ESE.

I don't disagree with her goals or those of the teacher.  Matthew's social impairments and high level of anxiety lead him to often lash out at others, whether they are children in his class or adults trying to get him under control.  I understand entirely the feelings of parents whose children are the target of his anxiety or frustration.  On the other hand, I object to labels like "bully" or "intentional" because they imply that he has some measure of control over a condition that he clearly does not control.  I am hopeful that Matthew will learn control with time, but he is clearly not a bully, in the sense that his lashing out has nothing to do with demeaning or belittling another child, and more about being unable to control his impulses and frustration.

[I am reminded of the scene from the movie Temple Grandin, where Temple lashes out at another graduate student, and is told by her teacher and mentor that her behavior is unacceptable.  She is brilliant adult woman, obviously coached by her family and friends about correct behavior, who still can't control her frustration and impulses as an adult.]

Which brings us full circle to the decision to be made.  Matthew's behavior specialist from the autism unit at the district is of the opinion that he needs to move, that attitudes have changed at his current school and when something is no longer working, you find something new that does.  This new school has an Aspergers classroom, where he would have peers (as opposed to gen ed "friends" who think he's weird) and a teacher with a "think outside the box" attitude.

On the other hand, making a 9-year old switch schools, leaving behind all of his friends, the engineering curriculum that is so suited to his strengths, and all that is familiar, because the current school is no longer willing to accommodate seems like the wrong thing to do.  What if the new school begins to make life difficult too?  What if the teacher leaves?  Then what....another school?  Homeschool?  We could "force" the school to accommodate better (they are already very accommodating, in my opinion), but how would that benefit Matthew, who has to face that teacher and principal every day?  By law they are allowed to discipline him for his behaviors so long as they are following the IEP, and suspend him if necessary so long as the suspension or disciplinary measures are not a change in placement.

That leaves us with very little that we can do to change the current situation, other than change schools again.


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