Who Should Bear the Burden of Communication?
(Letter to the Editor of the Portland Press Herald)

I am the mother of two daughters, one of whom is autistic, and have been in attendance throughout the first two days of the Rankowski/Fitzpatrick vs. Town of Falmouth hearing. I would like to offer a few clarifications about the testimony, and a few opinions.

Jan Rankowski has been home-schooled since 2002, not "since last year." The article indicates that "the school district agreed to allow him to use the school library and playground during recess." According to testimony, it was mutually understood by school and parents that he would use these public facilities as part of his educational program. His development and educational needs have been extensively monitored and assessed by his parents and by numerous professionals. Ms. Fitzpatrick has testified to her 25 years' experience as a teacher, including work in special education; she currently serves as an autism specialist for the Autism Society of Maine. It is Jan's right as a citizen of the state of Maine to have access to these public, tax-supported facilities, not a privilege to be granted or unilaterally withdrawn by an imperious principal. The playground is an important element of his education, since it specifically addresses his needs for exercise, recreation, and socializing with other children. This latter ability is one that takes a long time to flower in children with autism, and is an area in which they need patient, understanding, positive support, not hostility, punishment and condemnation.

The "reports from children that he was throwing rocks" are completely undocumented, a matter that has been addressed in testimony and should have been mentioned in your article if the matter was to be mentioned at all. This article is presented as news, not opinion. To publish pejorative hearsay about a disabled child without balancing it with the parent's perspective betrays an extreme editorial bias in favor of the school. Ms. Fitzpatrick testified that there were no rocks on the playground on the date of the alleged rock-throwing; the ground was surfaced with bark and fine pea gravel. School witnesses have been unwilling to confirm one way or the other whether that was the case. One would think if the answer was "yes, there were rocks on the playground," that they would have been willing to say so directly, under oath.

With respect to the tire swing incident mentioned in the article, Ms. Katz testified that several children, including Jan, were playing on the swing when things got a little wild, and that a child fell off when Ms. Katz grabbed the chain while the swing was still going at a good clip. My advice to Ms. Katz — that's never a good idea if there are kids on board; it's a matter of centrifugal force. Tell them to hold on, sit still, wait a minute, and a quickly rotating tire swing will generally slow down by itself. The kids may be a little dizzy, but they'll usually come off the swing intact.

In her testimony and in the eighteen pages of handwritten notes taken by herself and other teachers who were monitoring Jan on the playground — with written instructions not to talk to his mother — Ms. Katz made a number of references to "swearing," and your article uses the words "swearing" and "cursing" six different times. That's quite a load of blame for a little boy; but what was it that he said? In fact, during her testimony, Ms. Katz only referred to a specific "swear" word that she claimed Jan had used (he and his mother deny this); all her other notes and references about that matter simply characterized his speech as "swearing," rather than specifically describing the words he was using, and the exact nature of both sides of the communication — his and hers.

If it was Ms. Katz's job to accurately monitor and effectively interact with a child with Asperger Syndrome — a neurological configuration typified by difficulties with socialization, communication and emotional regulation, especially in relation to neurologically typical people — her testimony and the surveillance notes indicate that she just doesn't get it.

Communicating with children with AS can be a difficult skill to learn, but it is well worth it, since these children can be absolutely delightful, Jan included. Some of the skills adults must cultivate involve communicating in a way that is direct, concrete and explicit. Children with AS tend to use language in a very literal, blunt way, and to need a lot of explanations. A statement such as, "You have to stop using bad language" isn't good enough, because a child with AS won't know what that means. Responding to an autistic child's actions with the statement, "That was inappropriate behavior" or "you are being disrespectful" isn't good enough. "Bad language," "inappropriate behavior" and "disrespect" are fairly sophisticated concepts. If you want an autistic child to change his language, you have to offer him specific alternatives, just like you would with a four-year old — that is, if you want to be instructive and supportive, rather than authoritarian and punitive. Although Jan was nine at the time of the incidents in question, testimony and evidence indicates that his communicative development was that of a four year old, and emotional development that of a six year old. Believe it or not, that's autism; you've got to adjust your expectations. The first-graders he was playing with were as much his peers on the emotional level as were neurologically typical nine-year olds on the chronological level; and most of the neurologically typical six year olds can be assumed to have had an edge on him in the communication department.

Behavior that might be interpreted as rude or defiant may in fact reflect an autistic child's need for clarification. Jan should not be forced to bear the burden of responsibility of deciphering an adult's vague and confusing speech, then be held at fault for failing to do so. That's the adult's job — especially adults who are presumed to be professionals. How can a child be expected to learn if you don't tell them what you want them to know?

Adults working with children with AS must also learn to moderate their own emotional expressiveness so that they can get their message through to a child who is easily overwhelmed by even mild amounts of emotional input — autistic children simply don't process emotional information efficiently, that's the way they're wired. Speaking sharply to autistic children generally doesn't get the message through; rather, adult hostility terrifies them, and sarcasm is completely lost on them. Adults must learn to stay calm and rational, however difficult that may be at times. They must also put their assumptions about autistic children's motivations and sensory experience on hold. For instance, it is common for autistic children to cover their ears if they are experiencing emotional and/or sensory overload. To reflexively interpret this as defiance is simplistic and often inaccurate; to hold an autistic child personally at fault for this is to hold him at fault for his autism. If an autistic child says, "you should be more careful about the way you say things," he is giving you important information about his communicative needs, and doing it in a typically direct, autistic way. This is not the same thing as "talking back to the teacher," it is in fact a very positive developmental sign in a child with a neurologically-based impairment in expressive speech. An autistic child may often run from someone who is speaking harshly to him, in order to find a quiet place to be alone and regain his composure. This is not the same thing as "defiance"; under the circumstances, it may be exactly what child and adult both need — a cooling-off period.

In this case, we're learning about a very smart kid with the rambunctious energy of a six year old and the communicative skills of a four year old. Believe it or not, that's autism. Do you really think he should be banished for this?

A special education teacher should be expected to know these things, but Ms. Katz's behavior indicates that any understanding she might have had about autism did not influence her actions towards Jan. Her incessantly negative characterizations of his behavior indicate that she was judging him as just another kid who was "misbehaving." Maybe she didn't know any better; or maybe she did, but felt that it was more important to please the boss and get that disabled, autistic kid off the playground, than to take the time to understand what might really be going on.

25 August 2004

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