Kids on the autism spectrum were some of my favorite students when I was principal. I’ve come to love the unvarnished honesty that characterized so many of them.
I can remember the first day of school when I was introduced to a new student who happened to be on the autism spectrum. I’ll call him “Joe”. I said, “Hey Joe! I am Mr. Roman. Nice to meet you, to which he replied, “You have incredibly big eyes.” ”
What can I say? I have insanely big eyes.
Then it was my Deputy Principal’s turn. She wore a beautiful orange outfit. She introduced herself to Joe, who mentioned that she looked like a tangerine, and asked her, “Is that the look you wanted?”
Joe wasn’t rude or rude, and he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was just paying attention.
Getting to know and understand learners is always a task for every educator. It is particularly important to invest the necessary time to get to know students from the autism spectrum. Teachers who make students learn quickly are gifted in ways that may not be readily apparent. But if a teacher can’t see beyond what makes a child different, they’ll never discover what makes them great.
I suspect that most children on the autism spectrum, given the opportunity, would design a world that functions very differently from the world they are forced to live in. For many, their world would be much calmer. The conventions that regulate how we treat each other would also be different. It would be a much more literal and rules-based place, with a high level of consistency and predictability.
In my view, the greatest challenge children on the autism spectrum face is not that they have autism, but that they are forced to live in a world designed by people who don’t.
Every child has their own strengths and weaknesses. Each child learns differently, has their own personality, comes from a unique home environment and has their own personal experiences of schools and teachers. Every child socializes differently. Some are outgoing, some are shy, some are brave, some are cautious, some are independent, some require more attention, and some are resilient, while others are slow to bounce back.
Billy is a visual learner. Carla is an auditory learner. Troy learns best by moving and using his hands. Cai seems detached but hears and remembers every word you say. Tommy enjoys working in groups while Jayla works best alone. It is a teacher’s job to accommodate these learning styles and preferences.
Tailoring instruction and creating an environment that meets the unique learning needs of each student is a daunting task.
All of this makes me wonder why we aren’t more open about school choice. At the moment we have a one-size-fits-all approach. Public schools are generally run on the same basic concept.
Any customization based on individual student needs falls squarely on the shoulders of teachers, who are forced to work in an environment governed more by conformity with government than what benefits students.
Wealthy parents can shop to find the school that best suits their children’s needs. It might be the local public school, or it might be a Monterssori school. Maybe it’s the parish school at St. John’s or one of the county’s Christian colleges. Maybe homeschooling is your best bet, or maybe Springdale Preparatory School in New Windsor is.
There are schools like Gerstell Academy and up the road McDonough, Calvert Hall and a variety of other private institutions available to wealthy parents.
But when you’re poor, you get what the government gives you. If the public school model isn’t right for your child, so be it, and if your child’s local school sucks, well.
If, as Democrats claim, the poor and traditionally disadvantaged families are a key constituency of their party, they are failing that constituency in very fundamental ways by denying them the same educational options available to wealthier families.
Too often, economically disadvantaged children are prisoners of the school that the government tells them to attend, whether or not that school effectively meets their needs. In so doing, they are condemning these children to a life of economic hardship and deprivation, and I cannot understand how the Democrats can be content with their position on children’s education.
Every student is different, but for some reason we try to put them all in the same box. For many, it’s like trying to insert a round pin into a square hole.
Our goal as a society should be to find the right path for each student. I think many students realize that the path does not lead through the public school system. But as things stand, alternatives to public schools are only available to the privileged.
I’m not sure who benefits from this. Certainly not the children, and we all pay a price for not raising a child properly.
Chris Roemer is a retired banker and educator living in Finksburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org