Give Children with Autism What They Really Need
April is World Autism Awareness Month, but I wonder if anyone in North America is truly unaware of autism. With a reported 119.8% increase in identification and 1 in 68 children in the United States currently diagnosed with autism, most of us in North America are aware. With a master’s degree in special education and K-12 lifetime teaching certifications in learning disabilities and behavior disorders, I sometimes wonder if we over-identify autism in the United States, but I never doubt that autism exists.
Autism as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 (fifth edition), and summarized here, is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by four criteria:
1) persistent difficulties in social communication and social interaction
2) restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities including stereotyped movements, insistence on sameness, and restricted, fixated interests; hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to sensory input
3) These symptoms must be present early in life.
4) These symptoms must cause significant impairment.
Awareness is indeed important. Know the early warning symptoms. Know the inherent safety risks with autism. Obtain an evaluation for autism from a children’s hospital or developmental-behavioral pediatrician, so speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, sensory adaptations, and effective behavior strategies can begin immediately. Early intervention can be powerful.
However, my concern as a classical Christian educator is not only with awareness, but what we do next with the children who are diagnosed.
I cringe when I read the word that often bubbles up whenever we attempt to categorize people: inclusion. Inclusion itself seems laudable: embracing and integrating. But we must define our terms. Inclusion of children with autism often entails enrollment into programs focused solely on “behaviors,” “life skills,” and “hands-on work,” and this can become little more than a dehumanizing, pediatric technical school.
When I see Autism Awareness placards clamoring for “inclusion” I cringe because I know that children with autism often gain access only to our failed educational experiments.
In 1975, Public Law mandated free public education for all children, including those with special needs. This seemed noble, but by the mid 1970s public education had already begun stripping itself of whatever Truth, Goodness, and Beauty remained. Right and wrong could no longer be “imposed” upon children, and devotion to the great tradition had largely disappeared as Great Books were exchanged for more popular or practical reading. Content began to be replaced with innovative methods. Recitations, memory work, Socratic teaching, fables, and even teacher-led teaching were deemed antiquated. Great art, music, historical heroes, Latin, Greek, and the great ideas in mathematics and science were replaced with more utilitarian or trendy pursuits. Cast aside in both academia and in teacher training, such staples in education became abandoned for newer and, presumably, better approaches.
Thus today, when I see Autism Awareness placards clamoring for “inclusion” I cringe because I know that children with autism often gain access only to our failed educational experiments. Like a trampled welcome mat tossed by the back door and leading only to a cluttered, disheveled garage, this weary invitation of inclusion leaves me cold.
What Can We Do?
I learned plenty from my master’s degree coursework and from clinical experience in special education, but I learned about the promise of effective education most pointedly from twin fair-headed babies who came to us at the same moment through adoption. Both of these children have autism, as I described in my book, Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child:
“Michelle wriggled and squirmed. She craved deep contact but could not sit still long enough to enjoy being held. Her sensory system seemed to malfunction. Seemingly impervious to pain, Michelle combat-crawled into furniture and walls, banging into them as if on purpose. Nothing most toddlers would deem painful seemed to bother her, but then when we tried to remove a shirt over her head, she cried as if in agony. Language, too, appeared to be an area of difficulty….”
Her twin brother Michael had low muscle tone, difficulties speaking clearly, and a tendency to wander. He suffered from mood swings and melancholy, tantrums and rages, and he struggled to pay attention even in our homeschool tutorial setting.
Over time Michael and Michelle revealed several specific learning disabilities; low functioning memory; and, like their biological mother, severe and persistent mental illness—specifically schizophrenia, an illness that results in terrifying hallucinations, paranoid delusions, and disordered or blocked thinking. Both children, now 23, were given a classical Christian home education.
They studied Latin for years. They studied history, geography, art, music, mathematics, natural science, logic, rhetoric, and theology. We adapted to their levels but did not compromise on content. When they needed additional review, we provided simple games and multi-sensory exercises. When they could not read, we read to them. When they could not write, we broke down the task of writing into its smallest parts. (Simply Classical Writing: Step-by-Step Sentences and all of the Simply Classical Curriculum is based on this approach.)
We discovered that the steady routine and sequential learning inherent in a classical education serve the autistic mind’s need for predictability. The broad scope of a liberal arts education counters the narrow interests so common in autism. Compassion, empathy, and mercy evoked by good literature assist in the otherwise difficult challenge of considering how others think or feel. Poetry opens cognitive and linguistic doors. Enriched vocabularies bridge social gaps. Arithmetic, mathematical reasoning, music theory, geometry, and astronomy bring a sense of wonder and the stabilizing comfort of divine order.
On the way to and from therapies and doctor appointments we listened to poetry set to music, chanted Latin declensions, or heartily sang the songs that “every child should know.” At home, on trips, and when they needed to rest, we read to them Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolkien. We had some unspeakably hard years, but we pressed on.
In compliance with state mandates, our children were tested by the children’s hospital when entering eighth grade. In some measures both children tested as post-secondary students would test. We knew this was not due to their innate abilities because earlier testing had revealed much lower scores. I knew it was not because of my own abilities, because I had taught in private special schools with rather miserable outcomes when I taught from romanticized and so-called progressive pedagogical approaches. And I had served as the inclusion coordinator among twelve elementary schools in a public school district, but we never saw such measurable results.
Is an effective education measured solely in test scores? Of course not. Yet, having taught two upper level psychometrics courses, the measurable result we saw in Michael and Michelle grabbed my attention. I knew with certainty that my children’s lives had been changed not by me but by classical Christian education.
One Thing Needful
More important than test scores, I began to witness in my children a desire to love and serve others. Both children still reveal autism’s many symptoms. However, like all children who receive an education in the true, the good, and the beautiful, Michael and Michelle have been encouraged to live lives of service to others. Their lives are not dominated by the services done for them, as is so often the case in children and adults with learning disabilities.
In our home a classical Christian education included biblical studies, Scripture memory, singing of hymns, praying, confessing the ancient creeds, and receiving the Word and Sacraments in corporate Divine Service. Thanks be to God, the Lord has become my children’s strength and song, and He has become their salvation.
Today, my desire is for all of our children with special needs to be embraced by our classical Christian schools and home schools, whether in classrooms, small groups, or tutorial settings. We hope that our Simply Classical Curriculum may assist with this vision.
Michael and Michelle will need good medical care, nutrition, and supervision for the remainder of their lives. They will also need to know they are loved, forgiven, and kept in Christ Jesus who lived, died, and rose again for them. In this truth alone they find hope amid sorrow, strength amid tribulation, and courage to love and serve others in their own trials.
Michelle now works a four-hour shift, two days a week, as Activities Aide in a nursing home. She chats cheerfully with residents who come to the Activity Room, and she calls the Bingo numbers when they want to play. Sometimes she notices yet another elderly person who “sleeps more hours in the day.” Michelle’s voice softens as she enters such a room quietly. With a high, clear tone, she sings a lullaby, ballad, or hymn. She sings one of her favorites, “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns,” pensively in a minor key. When I listen to her sing these verses, my soul is quieted:
The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks,
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.
The King shall come when morning dawns
And light and beauty brings.
Hail, Christ the Lord! Your people pray:
Come quickly, King of kings!
From childhood Michael wanted to be a pastor, but with his many physical and mental challenges, he knew this would never be. Instead our pastor encourages Michael to serve as his “right-hand man,” a volunteer assistant to our small congregation. On icy mornings Michael spreads salt on the walkways. He greets parishioners as they enter the church. He lights the altar candles. In the evenings at home, Michael listens to audio books or theological podcasts, and he reads in his own library filled with literature and history. He still occasionally hyper-focuses or wears his clothing backward, but he says with greater contentment than I thought possible, “You know, Mom? I like my life just the way it is. I give thanks for everything God has given me.”
Before our recent Easter service, while Michelle prepared to sing in the choir, Michael rang the bell with the pull-rope from the church’s old bell tower and, with instructions well-orchestrated by the pastor, turned on all the glorious overhead lights in the nave at the perfect time to shine suddenly among the candles on the altar during the Exsultet. Sitting with my husband in the pew—and knowing how hard Michael worked to accomplish all of this to the glory of his Savior—I heard the ancient words shouted loudly and boldly as Michael tolled the bell for all to hear:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
As classical Christian educators we have the resources to replace the worn, trampled door mat that leads only to inclusion in impoverished, barren approaches. Let us spread our best red carpet. Through needed modifications, a classical Christian education can bring children with autism and other special needs an approach of incomparable pedagogical richness. And through Jesus Christ our Savior we can bring these children to their merciful God. In Psalm 145 we hear, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you!” Now that is inclusion worth celebrating!