Imagine you are walking down the hallway at a local school. You see a student walking down the hallway. They have 2 backpacks slung around their elbows because the bags fell down from their shoulders. They are walking with a shuffling gate down the hall with these bags swinging back and forth. The are humming loudly and have a finger jammed into each of their ears. But they are smiling ear to ear.
Now imagine you see a student in class that rarely speaks except to echo what was just said. When they do speak, it is at a full volume yell. They often yell out a narrative play by play of what others in the classroom are doing.
One last time, imagine you are in class and a student has just asked their 24th question during your lesson. You remind them that it is not appropriate, but they keep asking.
The unifying characteristic of these examples is that they are all autistic students that are highly successful in the general education curriculum. They have minimal, if no need for special education services. These are also students that the current special education system fights to keep in special education rather than moving them out into the general education classroom.
Why is that? Why do we feel these students do not belong with their non-autistic peers?
I posit that it the result of active discrimination that results from not understanding autism on our part. The first example I gave was my brother. A celebration of his overcoming challenges in his education is what this post is about.
Kyle was a nonverbal autistic that had major sensory sensitivity issues. He would hum and plug his ears in the hallway because the din was just too much for him to tolerate. His ear plugging resulted in his bags slumping off his shoulders and onto his elbows. The swinging of these bags pulled him left and right as he walked down the halls until he had an almost drunken staggering gait. One could be forgiven at first glance in thinking that this was a special education student. They would be wrong.
Kyle was a pioneer. When Kyle reached 5th grade, Kyle made the decision that he needed to embrace the challenges of general education. More explicitly, Kyle told mom he wanted normal school. I guess he was sick of special education talking down to him and not teaching him as much as his general education peers were learning. So my mother gave him access-she put her foot down and made it happen. Fifth grade was good. Sixth grade was extremely hard, and Kyle really came into his own in 7th grade. Interestingly, the transition we fear most in autism; from just 1 classroom and 1 teacher to having 5 teachers per day and an A-B schedule was right up Kyle's alley.
Once Kyle entered the mainstream he never looked back. There was no resource support for him. We would have loved for there to be some sort of support at school, but he was not performing at a low enough level to qualify under the discrepancy model (be fair, he would not have qualified under any model, A's and B's do not receive resources). My mother sat down with Kyle for hours after school to help re-teach and act as a scribe for Kyle’s homework. Kyle got good grades in general education classes. He was happy. He made friends. In short, he succeeded.
Despite the sensory difficulties, he never lost his beaming smile in the halls. He loved the other students talking to him in the halls. He loved the bustle and people bumping into him. To be frank, I never saw Kyle happier than when he was walking in the hallways and heading into his classroom for another session of learning.
When it came to school, Kyle far surpassed the "normal" kids. He sat in class with his laptop furiously clicking away taking copious notes. He actually loved school and loved learning more than anything else. Like my father and myself, Kyle particularly enjoyed history and was easily able to pull B+’s and A’s in classes that were known as valedictorian killers. One teacher, a former University professor, personally proctored all his tests to Kyle because he didn't believe Kyle would be able to do as well as he was without help. This particular teacher found out just how smart Kyle was, and learned to respect Kyle's intelligence.
It never mattered that Kyle was nonverbal, it did not matter that Kyle was unable to write with a pencil or pen, it does not matter that Kyle walked down the halls with his ears plugged and his backpack and laptop bags swinging loosely off his arms as he did so; Kyle was going to succeed in “normal” school. And he did.
All this was done between the years of 1989 and 2000, long before we had the meager support we celebrate for autistic students today. In fact, my mother had to be rather blunt and stubborn with the school district to make sure Kyle had access to the general education. It was unprecedented, and in many ways still is to some extent. So, on top of all of his accomplishments, Kyle was a pioneer. He did not let his challenges hold him back-and my mother made sure that low academic expectations did not exist to hold Kyle back.
However, Kyle's education was not always smooth sailing…
Kyle was discriminated against. A lot. In high school we put him in a life skills class to learn work skills. Unfortunately, the teacher of the class did not know how to handle an exceedingly intelligent nonverbal student.
Kyle had teachers demand that they personally proctor his tests because they though the aides that were writing answers were cheating on Kyle's behalf (great joke is that Kyle knew FAR more about the topic than any of his aides ever did). Kyle never cheated. He never needed to. But, because he was a nonverbal autistic student he was freely accused of having others do his work for him.
One day Kyle was given a task. The teacher gave him 2 pages of medical transcription for him to copy on the guise that when he was done he would earn something (I do not remember what it was, but that is irrelevant). He finished the work in about 5 minutes and the teacher rewarded him for his hard work by giving him a not at all reasonable stack of work to do. Kyle flipped out. He did not handle this lie as he should have. He was suspended and they had to call my mother in to have a fun little chat. Quite simply, Kyle was suspended because a teacher lied to him and he reacted. He was wrong, but so was the teacher.
On another occasion, my brother was suspended for 3 days for hitting a student. He had hit a kid on the back of the head when he walked by this kid's desk. When my mother arrived to talk to the vice principal about it the next day, the student that had been hit was crying. When they asked the student what was wrong he told them it was his fault Kyle was in trouble. Every single day Kyle showed up first and this student would hit Kyle gently on the back of the head to play. Kyle loved it. On this particular day, Kyle came in later and tried to reciprocate. Unfortunately, he accidentally drove the kids head into the desk because he hit WAY too hard. So he was suspended. This student had begged the teacher not to send Kyle to the office, but was ignored. After this little revelation, the Vice Principal had to pull the teacher into the class and have a not so pleasant conversation. Once again, Kyle was suspended because a teacher lied. They used his autism as an excuse to get rid of him. They saw a mistake as guile because they wanted it to be so.
But Kyle overcame all these challenges: always with a smile on his face. No amount of discrimination or unfairness could remove his love of school. In fact, after high school we withheld high school credits so Kyle could have 4 more years of school in an adult transitional program. Kyle's love for education was so profound that when I left for college he had a very hard time because he was not allowed to attend the University with me. He just assumed he would be coming for more school like me. We thought at first this response was because he would miss me, but no. When I had moved to Honduras for 2 years for an ecclesiastical mission, Kyle was fine with it. He just kept track of when I would be coming back. When it came time for me to go to college, we could not get Kyle to stop crying alligator tears when he had to get back in the car and drive home. For years as a family we kind of laughed about this like it was some kind of cosmic joke. Upon reflection, Kyle's heart was broken and he was devastated that day. He knew that we had placed a limit on him, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Since he was not allowed to go to college, Kyle developed a unique personal development strategy: he watched the local public broadcasting station that ran university tele-courses in math and history all day, taking fastidious notes. He also started to start typing entire chapters out of Utah and US history textbooks I had left laying around the house. When he would reach the end of the chapter he would then diligently answer the study questions. He even went so far as to "borrow" my college textbooks when I returned home on weekends to keep on top of my work.
Kyle found a way to keep learning regardless of the labels....
Fast forward 14 years. Out of nowhere Kyle was admitted to the hospital with acute kidney failure and dangerously variable blood pressure. His lungs aspirated. Long story short, his last few days were spent on dialysis and Propofol/Morphine anesthesia surrounded by family as we impatiently awaited results from the pathology lab that would only finally arrive a month after his death. The doctors kept recommending we let him linger, just in case something was learned from the pathology report that never arrived, but we knew it would have only protracted Kyle’s Purgatory. So we let him go… Not long after Kyle's passing I could not get out of my head his love for education and learning. Kyle wanted nothing more than to be in school and actively learning. In fact, it still breaks my heart a little bit that he missed the opportunity to come to California to see me receive my Ph.D. Somehow I think he would have liked that...and been proud of me.
Kyle overcame everyone's labels and assumptions to be successful in school. Teachers saw him as weird, autistic, and broken. I am sure some thought him mentally retarded but a savant. Because my mother did not let anyone act on these impulses, Kyle was allowed to be successful. As an educational system, we need to find a way to make acceptance of autistics, rather than discrimination of autistics in school the rule. All students deserve the right to surprise us. And they will if only we let them.