By Dan Coulter
Your child is unique. Yes, that’s true for every parent. But parents of children with Asperger Syndrome or autism may feel it’s an understatement. Unique means one of a kind. But our kids are often…turbo unique. One of a kind with extra difference sauce.
And the world can be very unforgiving of differences. Or rather, with no malice intended, the world is often just not set up to deal with the different.
I’ve run into challenges just being tall. At the first college I attended, it was mandatory for men to enroll in ROTC, the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. We were issued uniforms to wear during early morning marching drills.
As I stood in line to get my uniform, with my 6 foot 4 inch height and size 14 feet, I discovered first hand that the Army was not into accommodations. When they didn’t have a uniform long enough, they just handed me the closest they had, inches too short in the sleeves and the pant-legs. But the shoes were the real triumph of anti-accommodation. Not having a size 14, they gave me the biggest they had, an extra-wide pair of size 12s.
Was I supposed to fold my feet in sideways to make them fit? To be fair, the army was not actively trying to torture me. The uniforms were bought to fit people within a common range of sizes and there was no system in place to deal with exceptions. It was my problem, not theirs.
I sometimes see schools expecting our kids to conform to one-size-fits-all classroom rules and routines in the way I was expected to cram my feet into my army-issued footwear. As I recall, I tried, and limped through one long drill session. After that, I wore black loafers and took the demerits for showing up in non-regulation shoes.
The other day, I heard about a mother who’d asked her child’s teacher if she could acquire an extra set of school books for her son because he had trouble bringing them home. The teacher refused, saying if she allowed one child to have them, everyone in the class would want them. After presenting a doctor’s note, the mom prevailed.
Of course, we don’t expect schools to accept dangerous or highly disruptive behaviors or focus attention on our children to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately, there are many completely reasonable accommodations (many included in Individual Education Plans) that some teachers resist because they don’t understand that a child truly needs them. Also, a significant number of schools are based on a mass-production factory model. Find what works best for the most children and use it. My son attended such a school in a suburb of Atlanta.
Luckily, even in factory-like school systems, I’ve heard parents tell of teachers who are open minded, flexible and willing to adapt the rules to find the best way to help each individual student. As parents, we love these teachers. We praise them to the skies. We want to clone them.
Well, why not?
If we can’t exactly clone them, we can influence their school systems to set them up as role models.
If your child has a superb teacher, make sure your school’s administration knows what a great job she or he is doing. Write positive letters to your school’s principal. Then write to your school system’s superintendent or school board. Be specific about what this teacher has done and how your child has benefited. Seek out other parents who are also pleased and encourage them to write similar letters. (If you feel comfortable going public, you could even write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Just be sure to think through how this disclosure could affect your child -- and you.)
I’ve worked extensively in both corporations and schools. Complaint letters are frequently dealt with at lower levels, but everybody likes to show letters of praise to an organization’s leaders.
This can encourage your school system to hold your treasured teacher up as an example to other teachers, or even to include that teacher’s attributes in future performance expectations for the entire staff. Even if you can’t clone a great teacher’s natural abilities, the next best thing is to influence other teachers to use his or her methods.
This is just one step toward making our schools more accepting of differences, but it can be an effective one.
There’s no way we can always protect our children from situations where they have to take the demerits for being different. But the more teachers we have actively supporting reasonable accommodations and flexibility, the more classrooms we can make into demerit-free difference zones.
And that’s a one-size-fits-one kind of environment that can free a child’s spirit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the Intricate Minds series of DVDs that help students accept classmates with Asperger Syndrome and autism. You can find more articles on his website at: coultervideo.com.
© Dan Coulter 2008 All Rights Reserved Used With Permission