Crossposted at my blog: Mama's Blog @ EllieCastellanos.com
I write about my daughter, Ellie, from time to time here on Daily Kos. She's almost fourteen and autistic. She's what some people would call "low functioning", but I prefer to call her, "Kick Ass Awesome". She is a talented artist and is very clever with technology. With some care and additional training, which will not be easy to accomplish because of her autism, but is nevertheless quite possible with a little creativity and perseverance, she just might become an adult with an independent source of income. She is so much more than she appears to be at first glance, and so on certain issues I get a little hot under the collar.
Vocational Education for autistic youth is one of those issues. It's come up again because someone on a Yahoo group I belong to is dealing with the same issue, and it made me "The Cray-Cray" when I read her post. Here's what I think, below the Puffy Orange Cloud of Progressive Activism...
I’ve talked about this issue before, and I’m going to talk about it again. It probably won’t be the last time, either. So if you feel like what I hope will be a righteous rant, read on. But my feelings will not be hurt if you go watch puppy videos instead.
I’m part of yahoo group concerning autism. A post was written recently regarding a woman’s 14 year old autistic son’s vocational education. I got the sense that he is in a LID (Low Incidence Disability, basically the kids who need more intervention) classroom just like Ellie. Her son was wiping down tables as part of his “vocational” education at school, essentially cleaning up after his typical peers had lunch. He hated the job and neither she nor her son saw any educational value in the activity. She wanted to know what others thought.
I became like those cartoon characters who turn very red and steam begins to shoot out of their ears. A train whistle popped out of the top of my head and began shrieking loudly.
I feel strongly about this issue. Not because I think anyone is too good for custodial work. There is nothing inherently wrong, and in fact, there are many things inherently right with wiping down tables and emptying garbage. Every good person on earth should do these activities with some regularity. Ellie included. My other children included. Me included.
Such activities do not occur in a vacuum. You must consider, and I insist that educators consider, how these kinds of “vocational training” activities appear to the typical peers that are watching them happen. What negative stereotypes are being reenforced? If typical peers watch Ellie wipe down a table every day after lunch, looking very “disabled”, they would have NO IDEA of all the talents, all the smarts, all the humor locked behind that “disabled” exterior wiping down tables. These students have very little interaction with the LID students. If they watch Ellie wiping down tables and nothing else, what conclusions do they draw about autism and disabilities in general?
If educators truly believe that wiping tables and emptying garbage are vocational activities that will provide benefit to my daughter, the entire program needs to change to provide other venues for typical students and SPED students to interact. There has to be some balance to the unavoidable perception that SPED students are only good for custodial work. Make it a peer program and I might, might agree to it. Make a show of Ellie’s other talents so her peers get a balanced view of what Ellie is capable of, and maybe I’ll reconsider my stance.
But the second, equally important question that has to be answered for every SPED student is, “What is this student’s vocation?” How can you offer vocational training to a child without first probing to find out what their skills and interests are?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a hundred million times if necessary. Ellie already has a vocation. It is clear and in all our faces and obvious to all but the intentionally obtuse. Now, if you are an educator and don’t want to deal with the problem of how to educate an autistic girl in her unconventional vocation, then I can kind of see why you might want to be intentionally obtuse. I’m not saying that Ellie’s vocation will be easy to provide training for. It’s uncharted territory and it will be a bumpy road.
I’m not asking for the educational system to provide flawless, perfected art and computer training to my autistic daughter. I AM asking for them to say, “We see the need and we will do our best to find a way. It might not be perfect but we’re going to do our damndest to make it work as best we can.”
What I do not want to hear is, “But this is what we do.” I don’t care how it’s been done before, I don’t care if it’s worked for others. I don’t care if other parents are ok with it. I. Just. Don’t. Care.