What’s the Problem?

traffic-sign-108779_1920Sometimes I wonder, is the problem me? Other parents have special education horror stories, but no one has twisted tales of terror like mine and my daughter’s. Am I a bad parent? A poor advocate? But no, I have moved Katie to two school districts outside my own, something I was told could not be done. My parenting and advocacy skills are not the problem. (And I’m sure they’re not in your case, either.)

Then I wonder, is the problem Katie? Our school district seems to think she has a “special” type of autism, one that makes her behavior particularly challenging. I remind myself that two other school districts didn’t have a problem with her sensory needs or behavior. Only one district (mine) resorted to suspension.

Katie might be a different flavor of autism than many, but she is not some strange or unique variety. Many children on the spectrum have sensory issues. Many have behavior. But sensory needs and the resulting behavior are not the critical problem here. If I, as a parent, can manage these needs alone, then the so-called experts at school should be able to handle the situation with ease. (And they have, except in my district.)

No, the real problem, at least in my opinion, is academics.

Katie has attended school in three well-rated districts and none of them have managed to teach her to read or do basic addition or subtraction. Katie has no significant cognitive delays, and yet she can barely do first grade academic work–AS A SEVENTH GRADER. This fact used to shame me, but now it simply makes me angry.

What’s wrong with our schools that something as basic as reading is not being taught? Especially to a child such as Katie who, due to her significant speech delay, will probably only conduct a conversation via laptop or iPad?

success-1433400_1280To me, there is nothing more essential than the ability to read and write. And yet, school administrators have told me again and again that it’s “just not functional” for Katie.

HOW IS READING EVER NOT FUNCTIONAL? Seriously. I can’t believe I need to have this discussion, at a school no less. Let me get this straight. We teach illiterate adults to read but not the disabled?

Given this state of affairs, it should not be surprising that the bulk of Katie’s academic progress has occurred as the result of individuals outside the school system. It took Barb, a retired teacher, to finally make progress on reading through a multi-sensory approach. Makes sense, right? The kid with all the sensory needs benefits from a multi-sensory educational approach.

Then two young behavioral therapists without teaching credentials taught Katie basic math in three weeks using nothing more than a dry erase board and multi-colored foam cubes from the Dollar Store. How can this be true?

It would almost be funny, except that it’s not.

In my daughter’s case, special education has been an epic fail.


“One-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone well.” 


When Katie tried the rapid prompting method, I watched her bloom. Within 30 minutes, I realized the problem wasn’t me or my child. It was the standardized, one-size-fits-all public school approach.

Why do districts insist on doing this? It makes some sense in the typical classroom, but is downright crazy, not to mention illegal, in a special education setting. The law requires an individualized approach, and yet, in nearly a decade, I’ve never seen evidence of one. Instead there’s a one-size-fits-all autism class, or at best, a mild/moderate and a moderate/severe. I’ve been told things like: “That’s not how we do things,” “That’s not our policy,” or “That’s not how you teach autistic kids.”

Really? So why does it work so well for Katie?

Even the annual goals have become overly generic. When I see he instead of she in a proposed goal, I know it wasn’t created with Katie in mind.

250228_465261366867616_1625140658_nI understand that teachers are underpaid and overworked. That’s doubly true in special education classrooms. But one-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone well. Special needs children in particular require a more customized approach. I’m not asking for a bespoke, designer educational plan. But how about something tailored to my child’s individual needs rather than a teacher’s convenience? How about something that delivers a true measure of progress?

At the very least, stop blaming my child when the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit. That’s not her fault or mine. It means it’s time to try something new.

And finally, at Open Mind School, we are. I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

Until next time,

About Cynthia J. Patton

Writer, Editor, Advocate, Speaker, Special Needs Attorney, and Autism Mom. Also the Founder and Chairperson of Autism A to Z, a nonprofit providing resources and solutions for life on the spectrum.
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