Since pulling my son who has mild autism out of the local ISD to homeschool him, I’ve noticed a divide in the responses I get. People who have worked with the schools or who have children who are differently abled are telling me that this is the best thing I can do for my son. People who have typically developing children and have not worked with children with special needs are baffled, though.
They wonder why I didn’t try to transfer Buddy to a different school, or why I didn’t address my concerns with the school. Or even try a different school district. And I can see why there is this disconnect. For the record, my husband never understood my insistence that I be able to pull our children out of school to homeschool should the need arise until he saw just how poorly Buddy was treated, how anxiety ridden Buddy became while going to the ISD, and how much calmer Buddy is now that he is out of it.
As someone who has a learning disability and is possibly on the autism spectrum, and as a counselor who works with young children struggling in the school system, though, my general belief is that fighting the school system won’t help, because the schools are not interested in helping children who are different. And while I am fighting the school system, my son will remain in a place that is killing his spirit and where he is suffering.
I could spend that time and energy fighting the school system and not having a lot to show for it, or I could spend that time and energy to educating my son myself. And yes, it is a huge commitment to make. However, when you have a child with special needs, the waters are going to be choppy either way. My parents really tried hard to work with the system. Everyone in my family, including all four of my grandparents, has been a teacher at some point in their career, and my parents strongly believed in working with the school district. And my mom has expressed a lot of regret about keeping me in the schools and not getting me out.
If I thought my history was an isolated case I might be more willing to work with the system. But what I’ve seen in my professional career has shown me otherwise. I see a lot of boys (and the occasional girl) who is in an alternate school and facing legal problems at the age of 10, 11, 15, etc. They are so young, yet they already have the “bad kid” label.
The alternate school in our area is not a lot of fun. They do school work all day. There’s no organized sports or recess time. Every kid I’ve met hates it and wants to go to the regular school.
When I do a history on them, I always find that they are also struggling with a learning disabilities, or as I like to call them, learning difference. Here is what typically happens.
Child starts school. Child has difficultly learning the material. Child is diagnosed with a learning difference and is sent to special education. But, rather than getting help in special ed, they are yelled at for struggling with reading or math or spelling or whatever subject it is they are struggling with.
There is nothing more demoralizing than struggling with a subject that everyone else seems to get effortlessly and then getting yelled at, often times publicly, for failing an assignment.
And often kids with learning differences are targeted by bullies.
And, deep in the culture of where I live, the boy code is strong. For the boys raised in my neck of the woods, saving face is incredibly important. Boys must always appear tough. They must never cry. They must put down anyone who insults them. And this means that when a teacher insults them, or when a kid insults them after being dressed down by the teacher, they act violently.
I work very hard with these kids to teach them to think long term, that it’s okay to cry, that it’s better to cry than to hit someone and end up in juvenile. But that is not their world. In their book, going to juvie and looking tough is better than breaking down at school and showing weakness, and nothing I say can dissuade them.
In essence, strip down a kid in jail and you’ll find a kid struggling with a learning difference who never got the help they need.
Does this happen to everyone with a learning difference? No! I have one and I was one of those kids who never got in trouble. Things came together for me when I turned 13 and I went on to be an honors students. But I had parents who had the knowledge and training to work with me (once again, everyone in my family has been a teacher at some point in their career). My parents worked with me after school on skills to help me in school. They talked to specialists, got resources, and, most importantly, let me know they were on my side and that my difficulties weren’t intelligence related.
Often the parents of the children I work with have a high school education and work blue collar jobs. They are teetering on the edge of poverty and do not have access to specialists or know a lot about learning differences or how to advocate for their children. They are sometimes working multiple jobs to survive and do not have the time or energy or know how to help their children. When I talk to the parents, there is a great deal of frustration because they know their child is not in a healthy learning environment, but even though they have complained to the school, nothing is done. They love their children, they want to help them, but they are unable to.
As an educated middle class mother might I have more luck advocating for my son? Perhaps. But to be honest, my parents putting in the work with me after school was what helped me more than anything that happened in school IMO. And further, seeing my five year old son labeled as defiant for having difficulties with transitions, something that children with autism do, and being punished for wearing his shirt backwards when he needed to be praised for dressing himself, was terrifying for me, because that is how it starts with the boys I work with. They are told that they refuse to learn, that they are deliberately failing school, that they are defiant, willful and that if they just straightened up they wouldn’t have any problems. As soon as I noticed them putting Buddy on that path I started doing everything I could to get him out of that environment.
I saw the picture below on Facebook, and it resonated. I was hounded in school for doing things differently. I didn’t hold my scissors correctly, but I could still cut, for instance, and this drove my kinder teacher mad. I’ve never held a pen correctly, yet I have beautiful handwriting. But these were things I was nitpicked over as a child and, if I persisted in doing it “wrong” I was being stubborn and willful, even though I didn’t act up in class and followed directions. My son is the same way. He’s a nonlinear thinker, and I want him to retain that because we need people who think outside the box. But when we punish kids for doing things differently or label them toxically for engaging in harmless behaviors such as putting their shirt on backwards we’re setting them up for being troublemakers in the future. Often if a kid gets in trouble for something that is harmless, like not holding their pencil rightly, then they figure they better really cause trouble to make the punishment worth it.
I don’t understand why schools can’t say that so and so doesn’t hold their pen right, but they can still write, so it’s fine. Or that so and so put their shirt on backwards, but it’s not interfering with their ability to learn and getting so and so on the path of dressing himself, so it’s fine. Or so and so learns better if they put transparent colored sheets of paper over their reading material, so let them do that rather than calling them defiant for being unable to read the traditional way. But this is the hell that kids in school find themselves in in Texas.
I am resentful that schools are so toxic for children who are different. I am resentful that my tax dollars are spent going to a school that was tearing my son apart. I am resentful that we’re shelling out a ton of money for therapy when, as a child with a documented disabilities, the local ISD should be providing those services (technically I could sue them to pay for it, but I’d much rather cut my losses than deal with them).
I wish I were one of those people who was better at organizing. I often think that if the parents of every child with a learning difference banded together and collectively put pressure on the schools to treat our children better and to teach to them in a way that they learn, progress would be made. But that’s not where my strengths lay.
What has worked best for me, and what I’ve seen work best for other people, is not to attempt to change a toxic environment. So I got my son out of the ISD, but him in therapy program for children with autism for 20 hours per week, and plan to homeschool on top of that. Everything I struggled through, everything I watched my parents struggle with, and everything I see my clients struggle with leads me to the conclusion that it is useless to get the school to teach my son in a way that he will learn. So I will bear that burden myself.