Most everyone in the field of education is well intended, each genuinely wanting to provide an appropriate education to each student. Teachers are expected, and make tireless efforts to “reach all learners,” “individualize instruction,” and “make reasonable accommodations.” But how can one reach, individualize, and accommodate learners when they do not actually know how that particular student learns. And, as we all know, static data from standardized tests teaches us nothing about how all students actually learn. Teachers need to know how each individual child sees the world and processes information.

Adding to this conversation, there is a group within the classroom that experiences an extreme form of this disparity: children with an autism diagnosis.

Think of some scenarios you may see in a classroom with a neuro-typical child. A student accurately and consistently solving complex math equations is labeled as a mathematical genius and is accelerated in the school’s math program; a student who can memorize dates with ease and can detail historic events in detail is labeled as a walking encyclopedia and urged to join academic teams and take every available advanced or accelerated class; a student who can put paint to canvas in a wildly imaginative way is encouraged to take every art class available and is assisted with finding scholarships to art colleges and institutes.

Now think of many kids with autism in the same situation. Many are mathematical geniuses; most kids with autism are walking encyclopedias; some autistic kids are very artistic.

Why in the above scenarios do we see advanced skills in neuro-typical children but only see autism in kids with an autism diagnosis? This is a crucial question to ask.

Sadly, the answer is simple. Autistic children are seen as one thing first, autistic. Reason being, for many years autism has been labeled and treated as a behavioral disorder. Autism is a neurodiagnosis, NOT a behavioral disorder. The world sees autistic behaviors loudly and clear: arms flapping, meltdowns, verbal moans, and impaired speech. And in a classroom setting these behaviors often lead to removal from the classroom for a sensory break.

Take a second to see some major disadvantages that are happening to students who are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education under the law. They are being removed from the learning environment while their peers remain; they are being isolated from their peers and singled out as abnormal-discriminatory. Over time, when behaviors are the constant focus, parents are left to their own demise and end up pulling these children from school to provide them an education either at home or online, not free.

This is the written federal law: “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” Site: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/

Has inclusion failed these children? Now is the time to improve education results for children with disabilities. Imagine if there was a solution, a simple solution. An ounce of prevention needs to be considered.

As with most children, behaviors have a root cause. Instead of asking how we can prevent students with autism from disrupting the neuro-typical classroom, let’s ask how we prevent students with autism from experiencing an internal storm that leads to behaviors outside of their control. Sensory breaks are the common answer to this in schools. And while sensory rooms and breaks might distract and halt a behavioral episode, it is not explaining why the behavior is occurring in the first place. The focus is misguided and the intervention, at no fault to these children, comes too late.

We have to shift the focus from thinking of these children as behavioral problems to capable learners. Unfortunately, it is challenging to understand how to truly create a learning environment that allows them to showcase their neurological strengths. But this can be done. It is possible. These behaviors are being caused by something. What if that “something” is removed? Will these behaviors disappear? They will.

One might find the answer in the homes of children that have been removed from public schools because inclusion has failed them. These parents have researched, on their own, science and researched-backed approaches and applied these at home in a learning environment. Parents, like my husband and I, get to see their child flourish and learn in incredible ways without a single behavior episode during the day.

In schools, the behavior is occurring because these children are left to flounder in an environment that does not parallel the way their brain functions. That is not an appropriate learning environment as protected under the law.

While it will take a restructuring inside of schools for this change, it can happen. Could this be part of the answer to the current tumultuous storm in public education? It is truly concerning that there is a mass exodus of quality public educators. Imagine if we, instead of placing unrealistic expectations on educators, actually hired more and equipped them with the tools needed to “reach all learners.” Teachers are fiercely passionate about helping all their students. I know because of being one until five years ago when having no choice but to leave my job to stay home with my son.

According to the CDC, in December 2021, 1 in 44 people received an autism diagnosis which is up from 1 in 54 in 2020. One can make different arguments for this increase, but the discussion needs to begin on how to leverage the playing field for these children.

I am making a call for the discussion on how we can create an environment in our schools for autistic and all children with disabilities where they can be fast-tracked based on their academic skills and neurological strengths rather than being isolated and dismissed as behavioral threats. The time is now for a pivotal point! These “kids,” under the law, should receive a free and appropriate education like all our children, our most precious natural resource.