Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Autism at CMS

I've been blogging for over six years about Latin America, and it is only now that I need to write about something else, very personal yet also tightly bound to public policy.

If you care about autism, read on. If your child is in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), read on. If neither applies, please read on anyway.

My 10 year son has high functioning autism, which makes his life challenging in ways my wife and I work daily to grasp, even after years of reading, talking to (and paying) every expert we can find, and listening to him. He does not intuitively understand how to make friends, how to deal with conflict, or know what others are thinking.

His brain does not work that way. But he is brilliant. And I mean brilliant in a way I wish I was, with amazing understanding of planes, electronics, and mechanics. I have a Ph.D. and am a full professor, but his intensity of knowledge at that age amazes me. With a rigorous academic environment, he could thrive.

But CMS fights us. They tell us they've never seen anything like him, that he's emotionally disturbed, incapable of achieving what we think, and it must be our fault as soft parents. His academic level is high, so he's in a Talent Development (TD) school, Irwin Academic Center. Last year he was at Croft Community Elementary, which treated him so poorly that we filed a successful state complaint that ruled he was denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), a serious finding.

After years of fighting, we managed to get him an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) based on his disability, part of which details how discipline needs to be administered because it is so delicate with an autistic child. However, his IEP is inconsistently honored, and he was just suspended even though the school clearly did not follow the IEP stipulations.

What does this mean in practice?


Imagine a teacher leaving a room of 10 year olds all alone. Then imagine putting a 10 year old in charge of disciplining a peer with autism, encouraging the peer to publicly humiliate those who in her eyes misbehave. This means actively encouraging a child with autism to fight back. That is what led to the suspension.

I don't get it. I just don't. CMS has no classroom for children with high functioning autism, and our requests even to talk to the new superintendent, Heath Morrison, have resulted only in condescending emails.

We know many parents who have fled CMS because of the conscious failure to accept the fact that some children have high functioning autism and need more help in the classroom with recognition of their high academic potential. For someone like me who is the product of all public schools, from kindergarten through Ph.D., this is truly depressing.


Rebecca,  10:23 PM  

My heart breaks for your family and for your son who already has more to handle than any child should. It should not be this hard to do what is best for our children. It should be common sense. Instead it is politics and economics and finger pointing and closed doors. All of these things just adding up to more obstacles for our children to overcome. Bravo to you and your wife who have obviously braved this journey for many years. I know how frustrating it can be but also that your son would not be where he is now without two advocates wuch as yourself. Keep fighting and remember that there are no black and white answers when it comes to IEPs. Your son is the I in the IEP. Anything is possible if you push nack hard enough. Don't give up and know you are not alone.

Anonymous,  2:12 AM  

So common in CMS. I have heard so many horror stories just like yours. I wonder what it is going to take before they get their act together. What happened to your son is horrible and I am so sorry. Shame on you CMS!

Carol 9:36 AM  

Dear Greg --

So sorry to hear this. You are not alone! I know exactly what you are talking about! Our daughter is also high-functioning autistic. She was in the TD at Villa Heights (which is where the Irwin TD program used to be). She was also suspended for a conflict with another student, also under poor supervision.

However, I can also tell you that it is not like this at all CMS Schools. Her experience in middle school and high school at Northwest School of the Arts has been much more positive and supportive. I've come to believe that it really depends on the school culture, the administration, and the Exceptional Children case managers at each individual school. The rotten thing is that all of these are variables that can change. I am well-aware that we have been extremely fortunate to find a CMS school that supports our daughter.

The sad fact of the matter is that services for Exceptional Children (even the pathetically minimal services that CMS provides) cost money, and it is money that CMS does not have and is not willing to spend on a small population. The person who said you were "soft parents" is shockingly ill-informed and insensitive (and should be fired, in my opinion!) It's great that your son has an IEP now, because that does give you some protection, but it is also true that teachers don't always follow the IEP, or understand it.

Remember that you and your wife are THE best advocates for your son. You understand him better than anyone else. I know your challenges. We've been there too. All I can hope, on days like these, when you feel like you're up against a huge, rigid, uncaring system, is that our voices, our experiences, will influence a few individuals to change, based on what they've learned from dealing with us, because we will not be quiet until our children get what they need.

Your son is so fortunate to have strong, devoted allies in you. Don't despair.

Greg Weeks 9:44 AM  

Thanks very much for the comment. We have been thinking about NW School of the Arts, esp. since he really enjoys piano.

Aguachile 5:22 PM  

It saddens, and also angers me, to hear of these troubles. So deeply unfair that so much should depend on wholly unqualified people who risk pushing everything in a wrong direction, when they should be doing the complete opposite. I wish you and your family the very best in this struggle.

Un abrazo,

Greg Weeks 7:11 PM  

I appreciate that. And best of luck in your new European endeavors! You are my go-to guy for the intricacies of Mexican politics.

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