An 18 year old with Asperger's Syndrome was arrested for loitering outside a library. The exact details on the story seem a bit fuzzy. It seems too be the police's side verse the mother's (who wasn't there). So what the boy was actually arrested for is tough to put a finger on. Did he threaten police like the police claim, or did the police react inappropriately to his race and his odd behavior?
For an educator, the details don't necessarily matter. I can't shake the story, perhaps because it brings up the same questions in Jodi Piccoult's fictional book, House Rules, where a boy with autism is arrested for murder. Yet, with Piccoult's book we could tell ourselves it was fiction and not worry about it much more. Yet this is real, and reminds us that innocent or not, our children with special needs have to live in the 'real world'. Are we doing enough to prepare them? How do we prepare them for how to deal with police and other authority figures? How do we help them understand reading social cues enough to not endanger themselves when they are outside of our care? Can we teach them to advocate for themselves when they are in stressful situations? Will they understand the importance of advocating for themselves with authority figures?
I'm always an advocate of teaching social skills. But when I really examine my teaching, I have to admit, I tend to lean toward academics over everything else. It's not that I don't teach social skills- it's that when it comes down to what is important- learning to read always wins.
In kindergarten and first grade I feel like learning to read is essential- and not only is it essential, but every child MUST learn to read. If they can only do one thing- either sit quietly or read, I'll choose reading every day. It's a nonnegotiable. We will learn to read.
But when have I sacrificed social skills and survival skills for academics? We all do it, after all, we've been hired to teach. Our job is not to make sure that our children are prepared to handle being arrested in a social appropriate way.
Except, in special education, it kind of is our job.
And when do you teach it? If I don't do it in first grade 'cause we're learning to read, then do you get it in second grade? They're busy polishing up those reading skills to get ready for testing in third grade. And after that, it's the tests are what become non-negotiable. There is no time for anything else. And with inclusion (and don't get me wrong, I love our full-inclusion model), when do we teach these straight forward skills that typically developing children do not need to be taught? When do we teach strategies for dealing with authority figures, how to stay calm in a crowded public situation, how to advocate for your own needs when you are stressed?
The ironic thing with autism is that the higher functioning the child is, the more we keep them with their peers. Which is how it should be, 95% of the time. But the higher functioning someone is, the more promise they have of living a successful life in society, making those social skills they struggle with essential for them to fully meet their potential. People with high functioning autism in society are less likely to have had any social skills coaching- and most likely that will lead them to missing out on opportunities, rubbing others the wrong way, and in some cases, ending up in dangerous situations that could have been avoided with the right amount of social skills training.
But when do we do it? We don't want to keep our children away from their same-age peers just because of their disability, but we do want them to be successful- not just academically, but socially as well.
How do we prepare our children with Asperger's to not just be successful academically, but also be successful navigating the real world? How do we, as special educators, help our students to never end up arrested over a misunderstanding due to their disability?
You've brought up some excellent questions. I, too, struggle with the balance of teaching social skills and academics. I am fortunate to have my kids all day in a self-contained setting, therefore I have more flexibility in my schedule to squeeze them in on an as-needed basis. I think the best we can do (which isn't saying much!) is use those teachable moments. If you encounter a situation that a student struggles with social interactions, use that time to reinforce or introduce appropriate social skills.
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