Meaningful Learning




The beginning of another school year means preparing for IEP’s again so that Johnny can have a successful year of learning.    We have to think about what that will look like for Johnny and how do we advocate for his needs.   As he goes through the “Grade levels”  in school my husband and I are more and more troubled by one nagging thought.  When a child with Autism goes into the regular classroom they are expected to adapt with the learning style and they need to cope with all the distractions in the classroom and keep up with the other students.   My son gets support in the regular classroom in the form of an EA (education assistant he shares with 2 other boys) but I have to say I’m uncomfortable with the support he gets.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that he has an EA  because not all children get this who need help.  I am just questioning the kind of accommodation my son is getting so that he can access the curriculum and learn.  We want him to learn for real.    What does that mean?

We are worried that support means that the EA gets the  boys “attend” to the teacher,  sit nice in class, listen to the lecture style format with notes on the smart or black board, and participate in the back and forth question and answer between the teacher and students.    Then because the regular class moves quite quickly,  if the boys can’t fill out their work sheets fast enough, the EA then “scribes” their verbal answers for them.   Meanwhile the rest of the  kids can read with various skills their textbooks and they can print and answer the questions on their own even if they don’t know the answers.  They are doing their own work from start to finish.   They do not need someone to convert the curriculum into something that’s more meaningful to process.   They don’t need someone to scribe their answers down they write it themselves.   I remember an OT telling me once that a great way to reinforce working memory and long term memory is to read it, think about it and then write it down.   What if you are not given any time to do any of these yourself?  How do you learn?  Support staff say they’re doing this because of the time factor the regular students don’t get much time to do the work now at Grade 4 level and so now all the children are  learning how to work under pressure.  The kids with Autism take slower time to process, write it down etc so the EA’s will scribe what the child knows so that the work is done at the same time as the neurotypical kids.  I am uncomfortable with this because it doesn’t matter to me if he finishes the work.  I am concerned with the process and journey of learning  .

I have given it a lot of thought butI  don’t think that is the right accommodation.  I think this might be what I have read other Autistics refer to as “abelism”, correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t feel like learning.  The accommodation should be that if it takes him and the other Autistic boys extra time to sit and read through the work and answer it then they should be given that time.   In the end they should be allowed to to do the work the way their disability dictates.  What if Johnny was blind?  I guess they would be scribing too but when will the blind child be able to do their own work?  I can tell that this has happened a lot with Johnny because when he is trying to type and spell a work he stops and looks at me when he gets stuck.  He gets frustrated when I  gently prompt him that I know he can do this with little tips but I won’t do it for him.  It takes some gently prodding and lots of praise but slowly he starts getting the work done.

It makes me wonder if the school system just wants  him to keep moving forward and into the next grade and be with all the other kids instead of really making sure that he learns all foundations of learning.   Things like reading, writing, critical thinking, spelling, and mathematics.   I feel like we have a big mountain to climb because even the Autism teacher says that most teachers prefer to just speak to a class,  write on the chalkboard and they just don’t like putting up visuals because they think that means using pictures and thats dumbing down the curriculum.   I was told sadly, many teachers aren’t comfortable with changing their style but because he is in special education he has learned that there are many ways to teach a child.
So I’m left this morning with thinking as we going to the IEP preparation season that when it comes to schools, what exactly is autism awareness?  I honestly feel that society and school are so willing to be AWARE of autism but acknowledging it’s there is not enough.  A child who is a visual learner doesn’t mean that they have an intellectual disability it just means they take in our world with a dizzyingly amount of data.   When I read a few sentences written to describe Van Gogh’s Starry Night I get an idea if I’ve never seen it what it must feel like to stand in front of it and look at it.  But if I see a photo of the same painting and look at it I get a lot more information about the colours, texture, strokes, technique, feelings, story, setting then I could every get from words from the very best author.  I’ve met many children that have autism that can read at a much higher level than their age but they might not be able to understand the nuances of language that go with it because as visual learners they’ve looked at the words as visuals and memorize them.   But those same children are judged that they cannot comprehend the text because they do not understand the meaning but maybe they have just learned it differently and now just have to learn the meanings.

My son does this with numbers as he finds the patterns and memorizes all the patterns and sees the logic in the numbers.  But because he can’t do a word equation that I frankly find very confusing after all these years, teachers often think he cannot do Math and its such a struggle.  But he can look at a series of numbers and figure out the pattern what numbers are missing and he has 100% fluency in addition and subtraction with numbers up to ten and is working independently to do that with multiplication and division.   He just doesn’t like certain numbers and likes to avoid those equations which one teacher might find quirky but reachable but another might find that he is doing that because he doesn’t know Math.   When Johnny did plant science last year he was not satisfied with learning the parts of the plant how the plant grows.  He wanted to know what all the names of the trees are in our neighbourhood and if we didn’t know take a cutting to the garden store and ask them.  I don’t think any other student in Grade 3 did this.

So now we feel the battle for Grade 4 is “what is meaningful inclusion” and what will it look like for Johnny.  Just trying to move Johnny and his autistic classmates into a regular classroom as much as possible is seems to be the goal.  Teachers and school board officials made it clear last year at the IPRC that they want Johnny “weaned off of supports” and in the regular classroom as much as possible with his peers.  At the same time they expressed concerns with his reading level that was way below his peers.   I told them that they can’t have it both ways.  They want ME to prove he is smarter then what he is showing.  They want him to do  the work without support yet they haven’t given him the tools or helped him succeed enough to do it.  More importantly they haven’t figured out that the way to have Johnny learn is to teach him the way HE LEARNS and not force him to learn like all the other kids.   School board officials and teaching professionals seem to prefer a cookie cutter “one size fits all” approach.

We are lucky that his Autism teacher in his home room doesn’t believe this and wants to advocate for “meaningful integration.”  As parents we feel that until high school, the best way for Johnny to learn is to split his time between two rooms so that he can have “meaningful learning opportunities.”     Let the fight begin.


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