Thursday, April 13, 2017

Special Needs

This week I seem to be learning a lot about institutions and how they work. Or don't work, as the case may be. Earlier in the week I was dealing with my Dad being in the hospital. Today, it was my nephew and the school system. My nephew has special needs. While he has not been formally diagnosed with Autism, he is definitely somewhere on the Autism spectrum, which qualifies him as a "special needs" student.

I have written before about how my nephew does not like school. He just can't seem to get comfortable or find his natural rhythm there. The classroom is too loud and overstimulating, so he has a hard time concentrating. And just like the hospital, the school has a litany of rigid rules that do not allow much room for interpretation. The principal seems to think that with enough structure and discipline, he can force kids like my nephew to conform, but it just doesn't work that way.

Today I got a call from my sister around lunch time asking if I could pick up my nephew at school. She was about to go into a meeting and the school called to say that my nephew had an incident in his classroom and was being sent home. This has been happening more often over the past month. As the end of the school year approaches, I think my nephew is tired of being in school and the school administration is losing patience with him.

Today's incident seems to revolve around a bag of Doritos. All of the kids were told that they could bring a healthy snack to eat in class. My nephew went to his lunch bag and got some Doritos. The teacher explained to him that this was not considered a 'healthy snack' and told him that he could not eat his Doritos.

I should mention that my nephew is a very picky eater. There are only a few things he will eat. Doritos, BBQ baked lays, microwave popcorn, cheese pizza (but only certain brands), french fries with ketchup and a few other types of cookies and crackers. From this teacher's perspective, none of the things my nephew eats would be considered healthy. And yet, he has to eat something.

Apparently, my nephew was not happy about her taking his Doritos away. There was some sort of altercation in which they say that he 'hit' the teacher. I wasn't there, so I am not sure exactly how it happened, but according to the school rules if anyone hits a teacher under any circumstance, they have to be removed from school for the day.

Of course, it is not ok that he hit a teacher, even if it was unintentional and occurred in the heat of the moment. My nephew has to learn to control his emotions. But as I consider the overall situation, it seems to me that there were a lot of opportunities on the school's part to do things differently.

I am not a parent, but I spend a lot of time around kids. One of the most important lessons I have learned is to pick your battles. I would think that a professional educator would have the same ability to discern what is important from what is not important. The teacher's number one objective should be to keep my nephew in the classroom learning. While healthy snack time is a fun diversion for the class, it is not impacting his education in a meaningful way. If eating a bag of Doritos will keep my nephew in the classroom, then just let him eat the Doritos.

I also question the overall validity of the 'healthy snack' exercise. Instead of the teacher arbitrarily deciding what is healthy and what is not, why not let the kids learn about it for themselves? She could have asked each kid to bring in their snack and then brought out a chart with the recommended fat and sugar content to help them decide whether their snack is healthy. It seems like that would empower the kids to do some research and make healthy choices instead of just listening to whatever the adult in the room tells them to do.

Anyway, I got to the school to pick him up and we went out to my car. As soon as he left that building, I could feel his energy shift. It was the same thing I saw happen to my Dad when he got out of the hospital. My nephew was out of jail for the day. He was free of all the school rules and regulations. Free to explore. Free to follow his curiosity. Free to be himself.

I told him that we needed to go to the grocery store to get three things on the way to my Mom's house and then I showed him the list. He read the three items from my pink post it, trying to commit them to memory. Then he started reading every sign that we passed along the way. There was a sign on a church that said "Easter mass. All are welcome." I wish I could say the same about his school.

The sign must have reminded him that Easter is coming up, because then he told me that tomorrow is Good Friday. He told me that Jesus died on Good Friday but then he came back to life on Easter Sunday. He said that he hid a cross in his pocket and he will take it out on Sunday when Jesus comes back to life. He went through every detail that he learned during family night at church yesterday. It sounds like they went from room to room gathering symbols and hearing a different part of the Easter story in each room.

It is clear that my nephew is very smart and capable of learning. He just needs the right environment. Some people learn from reading and others learn from doing. I think that lot of kids would benefit from different types of learning in school, not just my nephew.

We got to the grocery store and took our list in with us. My nephew wanted to get each item in the order it was written on the list. That is definitely a quality of many kids on the Autism spectrum. They like to do things in order and can be upset when things are out of order, even if it is just a sequence that they have invented in their own mind. So, we got bananas first, then cream cheese and finally, the bagels. My nephew stopped to read all of the signs in the store and held my hand as he guided me to whatever areas he was interested in. I wasn't in a huge hurry, so I just patiently waited and let him take the lead.

His mind works like a computer. Taking in new information from his environment and processing it in real time. At the same time, there seem to be a lot of background processes that are constantly running. If I ask him a question, I always wait a few minutes for him to answer. It takes time for his mind to finish processing whatever it is working on before he can get to my question. Sometimes, after a long pause, he will answer me. Other times the computer in his brain seems to just "time out" and the answer never comes. My question gets lost in a tidal wave of other inputs competing for his attention.

We finally pulled up at my parents house. My Dad was sitting on the couch when we walked in. The first thing my nephew said was "Hi Grandpa, I am so glad you are home from the hospital." Then he put away his backpack and headed into the other room.

They say that kids on the Autism spectrum sometimes have a hard time feeling empathy or showing compassion, yet my nephew knew exactly what to say to my Dad. It is all in there, it just comes out in its own way. You can't force anything with him. But that is the beauty of it. Whatever he says is 100% authentic.

I have no idea what is going to happen when he gets back to school tomorrow. Or how my sister is going to find a way to navigate him through the rest of his education. There are so many challenges with the school system. Just like the healthcare system, it is an institution designed around conformity to standards. Standards in terms of what kids have to learn and how they must learn it. But my nephew and so many other kids like him just don't seem to fit. They need something more. Something different.

The school system labels kids as "special needs" because their needs are special. But I think they are looking at it all wrong. The kids are the ones who are special. I wish the schools would stop trying to manage special needs kids and start finding ways to support special kids' needs.

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