My job title is Autism Ambassador and each day it takes on a slightly different role. I speak to a wide array of audiences but one thing I have never done is write a letter to those in power. Today I change that.
As you well know, autism is a national health crisis with rates at 1 in 88. Let me say that again, 1 in 88! We all focus on those numbers, and rightfully so, but where does each one of those 88 end up? The school system and from my experiences presenting around the country the education system is not prepared for this.
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a knock on teachers or the system because I don’t believe the system was designed for the autism spectrum. You see, it is a spectrum and for those out there like me with Asperger Syndrome we may see the world differently. We may have what is considered a “behavior” when it is just our way to manage our environment. We may, as I’ve heard this story too many times to count by parents, “act out” or “be defiant” when we answer a rhetorical question not knowing that the question wasn’t meant to be answered.
Our ways are sometimes different and this may lead to being teased, or worse bullying. These effects for a person on the autism spectrum may not simply go away at the end of the school day, school year, or their schooling career. These effects can last a lifetime and many times the student has no idea why they are different or why their actions bring about such scorn. On top of that, if the school staff doesn’t have the knowledge on what Asperger/autism is how can they be equipped in handling the situation the right way?
I’m eternally grateful that I have been able to speak to so many teachers across the country as it is so moving when, during my presentation, I see tears. This is why I say the current situation is not a knock on teachers or the system because a lot of teachers simply don’t know. That’s the one thing that keeps me motivated and at the same time breaks my heart when I hear a teacher say, “I… I… I remembered a student years ago. I scolded him and thought he was just being defiant. Only if I knew! Only if I knew now back then I could have given him the support he needed.”
We on the spectrum aren’t more or less but we’re simply different. This being so I believe teachers MUST know this. In some areas we may need no support, and in others we may need much support. We can be geniuses in one area of knowledge and well behind our years in others. I’ve heard from parents in these instances that teachers sometimes simply state that the child isn’t “preforming to what they can because they don’t want to. See, he can do math so easily, why can’t he do other subjects as well? Why can’t he simply answer a question with something other than ‘I don’t know?’”
Again I want to say that I fully and whole-heartily believe teachers want the information. They want to learn and they want to know what they can do to give each and every child the support they need to become the most that they can be. Without the proper information how can they do this though? Let’s look at the numbers once again. 1 in 88! And not only that, the number is rising. What will be in the future? For now though if a class averages 30 kids that means, by average, once every three years a teacher will have a student on the spectrum. However, a lot of kids with Asperger’s may not have the diagnosis officially but they are there and they are in need of the support just the same.
So Washington, I yearn, beg and plead that it is looked into that those teaching now and those who are currently in school to become a teacher get the proper knowledge on the autism spectrum because, by average, each teacher will come across a student that has it at least once in their career. Speaking to many people as I have I’ve heard both sides of the coin. Even myself, I would not have the skills and the abilities to do what I am doing if it weren’t for my amazing 2nd and 4th grade teachers. On the other hand I’ve also heard horror stories from parents and it doesn’t need to be this way. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A little understanding goes a long way and with that understanding teachers are able to see that we aren’t trying to disrupt class and we aren’t trying to be difficult by taking all statements literally.
We on the spectrum have so much human potential but we might need a little bit more support in achieving this and the teachers I’ve spoken to have been moved to tears realizing past students who needed that extra support and understanding. At the same time those same teachers are looking forward and seeing what they can do now. That’s what we need every teacher to be doing. The human potential is there, but we just need to make sure all the teachers are equipped to know what the autism spectrum looks like and ways to understand it. This may seem like a difficult task but I’ve met so many passionate teachers and I know in my heart they want this information. Besides, the stakes are so high. Each one of those 88 is a person with hopes, dreams, and emotions and if they can’t get through school without constant disasters, meltdowns, and being bullied how can they get the education they need? What will their view on the world be? As I said, the stakes couldn’t be higher and I hope in several decades a letter like this isn’t needed, but right now it is and I hope that we can start down a road of full understanding because, after all, each one, each person that makes up the 1 in 88 is more than a statistic and for each of those there are hopes, dreams, and a yearning to be accepted.