After teaching in an Autism Focus Class for 3 years, homeschooling various Spectrum kids, raising my own Spectrum child, and earning a Masters in Special Ed.- Autism, I thought that I was about as expert as you could get in the field of Autism. When my opinion about a particular student not being on the Spectrum was ignored one summer, I was truly offended.
Since not all Special Ed. teachers choose to work summer school, I would occasionally get kids who were scheduled to go to other programs in the district. The summer of my 3rd year was insane. Not only did I have my own students who were entering 7th and 8th grade, the district had decided to leave my exiting 9th graders in my room for the summer as well. They had scheduled to have a non-autism, special ed. teacher teach the class for the students with Autism who lived on the other side of the district since the regular autism teacher was taking the summer off and my class was full. They had a student who was scheduled to go to that other class in the fall who had some severe behaviors Since the other teacher did not have experience with Autism, they decided to put this student with me for the summer. I had never seen a child quite like this one.
The student was so bright and academically capable. He was as verbal as any other incoming 7th grader. He could explain to you why he was upset and he apologized profusely if he did anything wrong. He recognized when he was out of line and made excuses for his behavior. He was very, very hyperactive and impulsive. I have only seen one other child as hyperactive and impulsive and this child and I later found out that the two boys were cousins. He didn't have any obvious stimming behavior. He was socially outgoing and wanted to be everyone's friend. He wanted to please adults and could be very sweet. The issue was that he heard things that weren't obvious to others. My first thought was that perhaps he might have an acute sense of hearing. My own son could hear a whispered conversation downstairs, while he was upstairs with a T.V blaring in the background, so anything was possible.
As with most students the first few days of summer school were the honeymoon period. He was great. He had a behavior aide assigned to him who worked well with him. She took him for frequent walks out out to play basketball to calm down and release some of his excess energy. He had figet toys to keep his hands busy. I had a "sensory room" divided off by a large refrigerator box, set up in our borrowed classroom, that he used often. (All special ed was on a high school campus for the summer, not in our own rooms on our own campuses.) There had been a few meltdowns and so we knew what could happen, but all things considered, we were managing. The problems began when the district realized that they had overstaffed the aides for summer school. They were required to eliminate the aides by seniority. They chose to eliminate this child's aide and give him an aide who usually worked with visually impaired students. I went to the director and begged her not to take his aide away. We were already struggling with this student's behavior and changing aides would be a huge mistake. They did it anyway. So, of course, things got much worse.
From then on, I evacuated my class on a daily basis. Actually, I evacuated my class many times each day. I would call down to the office for help as the student destroyed the classroom. Help would take forever, if it arrived at all. The "sensory room" was quickly destroyed, the items broken or removed due to them being used as weapons. I did everything I could to keep my other students safe, but I was devastated that they were losing their opportunity to maintain their learning. I started packing a bag for the classroom aide to grab on her way out with the other students. It had worksheets and pencils, so they could work outside.
The problem that we were having was that we couldn't successfully predict his behavioral outburst. His hearing issues became more clear. He was hearing voices. He would hear someone say something mean to him and he would attack whoever was closest, thinking that they had said it. It could be a non-verbal student, or a student who wouldn't ever think to say something mean because they were not tuned in to others around them. My smaller, meek and mild students, became the most frequent targets. For some reason, this student realized that my bigger, higher functioning students couldn't be the ones who were saying mean things. Maybe it was because they would fight back. I found myself putting my body between him and the other students to protect them as the aide attempted to evacuate them. Thankfully, even though I'm not a huge person, I'm pretty tough. And he was pretty small.
As the summer drew to a close, I raised the question of his diagnosis. I really wasn't seeing Spectrum in this child. I had never received his file, even after repeatedly asking for it, but I wondered how the elementary school had come up with their placement decision. I asked the Program Specialist to find and review the file before sending him off to the Autism program on the other side of the district. I had no personal stake in the placement of this child. I just wanted to make sure that he was where he needed to be in order to get the help he needed. I also didn't want to see another group of students get abused by him. The Program Specialist told me that it was just a part of the Spectrum that I hadn't seen before. I'm not sure if I had ever been so offended in my life. I actually had more education and experience with kids on the Spectrum than she had! I'm not sure I said a few choice words or perhaps it was just the look in my eyes, but she knew that I was questioning her authority and expertise. The next thing I knew, she had placed this student in my class for the upcoming school year. Lesson learned: Do not piss off the person who decides placement! (Gosh, I hope my district never reads this or knows that it is me....)
As time has passed with this student, I truly don't know what his diagnosis should be. I see some issues with understanding social cues, but I see more Emotional Disturbance issues than I do Autism issues. I'm beginning to think that he has a mix. His mother has admitted to hearing voices too. She says that they both speak to the dead. Maybe that Program Specialist was right. Perhaps this is part Spectrum and part something else and therefore, in her words, "A part of the Spectrum I haven't seen". I have now seen a few more students like this one, to some degree or another. I'm calling them "The Mix". These are kids who have both Spectrum and something else.
I'm still not sure how best to serve these kids in the public school setting. I don't believe it is the right choice to put The Mix students in with our most vulnerable population, but then, where do they go? As this student prepares to leave my program for high school, I am seriously concerned for his future. I don't believe that he was best served in my program because other adults on the campus excused his behavior because he was Autistic and in Special Ed. He is too academically capable to be in Special Ed., but too Emotionally Disturbed to be in regular classes. He is too much work for an RSP teacher who has a much larger caseload than I do, and he is too Spectrum to go into a regular E.D. Program. Where does he fit?
As annoyed and frustrated as I was about the placement of this student in my Autism class, I feel sorry for the new Program Specialist who has to make the decision of placement for next year. His file is full of conflicting opinions on his diagnosis. Autism experts have been swearing that he doesn't have Autism since the beginning of his entry into Special Education, but the School Psychologists have continually reclassified him as having Autistic-like behaviors, so he continues in the Autism programs offered in the various schools that he has attended. Like I said, I think that both sides might be right and that there is no ideal placement for this child. I fear for the future of these Mixed kids. My own nephew is one of them and he attends the elementary school that feeds into my junior high. I will most likely eventually get him in my class and then it will be personal. I will have a personal stake in this. What will I do when that happens?