Friday, July 3, 2009

Autism and School discipline

Today, since I didn't have to work, I watched a "Dr Phil" episode on school discipline.

Although I like to "ramble on" about various topics, there are some special interests I have due to my life experiences. One of these is the developmental disability called "autism", which has entered my life through my brother in law, through one of my son's friends, and through other children and parent advocates I have met over the years.

I want to write about this and I am not sure if I want to start a different blog for my serious thoughts, but for now I will consider it one of my "rambles". So, "serious subject" alert.

First, a very brief definition of autism so that you can understand what went on here. According to the Autism Society of America, autism is defined as follows:"Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities."

From this description, you can tell that those with autism require extensive and skilled special education services from the moment of diagnosis. There is a very wide "spectrum" of how autism affects an individual, so many experts name autism as a "spectrum" disorder. My son's friend, for example, is on the "high functioning" end - he has been a guest at our house many times, and has been a very good friend and companion to my son. He has been in special educational programs that have concentrated on teaching him the social skills needed to succeed independently, while "mainstreaming" him in a local high school as much as possible. (I visited the program several years ago, in another context (on both the middle and high school level), before my son met this young man.)

Special education teachers, on the whole, care about their students, strive to get the proper training, and sometimes deal with behavioral situations many of us not in the education field can only begin to imagine.

However, a child with autism (and also other disabilities) can have "meltdowns" in the classroom for many reasons - and educators have to know how to properly handle this when it happens. In the first case discussed on this show, this did not happen.

The first situation discussed was that of an Iowa couple's 8 year old daughter with autism. The school had met with the parents over discipline problems they were having with the daughter. The parents had signed a permission document allowing their daughter to be put into "time out" for 5 minute periods.Their attempts to deal with this autistic child's discipline problems climaxed with a 3 hour session in the time out room, during which time she wet herself. A tape was shown on the program showing parts of the time out, including a segment where the girl was screaming for help (and no one responded.)

The girl is verbal (not all those with autism are) but was unable to communicate what was happening to her. Well, she did, in the only way she knew...by escalating her behavior at home too.

The use of "time out" rooms is extremely controversial among parent advocates and others attempting to get their special needs children educated. The parents never dreamed they were giving permission for something like what the school did.

The point of this entire thing is that a child in a time out room (or in any other kind of isolation situation) for more than a few minutes of time to allow the child to "chill" and then be reintroduced into the educational placement deprives such child of her right to an appropriate education in what is called the "least restrictive environment". To a child with autism, this can be the difference between eventually being able to live independently (with assistance) or....not.

The lesson from all this?
Parents: TRUST YOUR GUT. Always have a good relationship with your school, but YOU are the expert on your child, not them.

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