Failure to Cope 

An explosion of diagnosed autism in school-aged children and a flood of parent-initiated lawsuits have left many local school districts reeling, and there's no solution in sight.

It's 8:10 on a gorgeous May morning in a classroom somewhere in the East Bay. I can't tell you the name of the teacher, I can't identify the school, or even the district. People who work in special education are that afraid.

The teacher, whom I'll call Ms. Heart because she's got plenty of it, combines good looks with smarts and fiery resolve. Her near-psychic empathy probably landed her in this classroom, but it's her resolve that's kept her here. Ms. Heart is not a quitter, and she doesn't let anyone around her quit either.

Right now she's dashing across the linoleum floor in running shoes, bermuda shorts, and crisp blue blouse, straightening chairs, putting together toys, connecting headphones to boom boxes. "I have three assistants," she explains as she pelts around the room. "Each gets two fifteen-minute breaks and a thirty-minute lunch. Nobody can go at the same time, 'cause that's not good for the kids. Besides the assistants, each kid is on a different schedule, and those schedules change depending on the day of the week."

"You're the general," I conclude.

She nods. "That's right. I tell 'em all what to do."

Within moments, the three assistants arrive, followed mere seconds later by the kids. There are seven children, kindergarten through second grade, and each falls somewhere on what special ed insiders like to call "the spectrum," short for "Autistic Spectrum Disorder." The number of kids included in that category is growing exponentially -- the state's department of developmental services registered 500 new cases in California in the last quarter of 2000, and 700 new cases in the first quarter of 2001. A syndrome that eight years ago used to affect one in every ten thousand kids has mushroomed to a rate of less than one in a thousand -- and no one knows why.

By 8:20, Ms. Heart is full into telling everyone what to do, but it's done so deftly and with such precision that no one bristles, they just hop to. Besides, it's clear that the classroom would dissolve into chaos without a firm hand. One of the kids is screaming and wailing and punching an assistant who glances with increasing desperation to Ms. Heart for help, two other kids are wandering aimlessly, poking at anything in sight, and one child is spinning on a stool. Ms. Heart chivies everyone into small purple chairs, where the kids squirm and fidget but finally sit in a line. The single girl seems lost in the group of boys, but soon she makes her presence felt by rocketing from her chair, only to be snatched by an assistant who gently but firmly brings her back to the seat. Meanwhile the wailing boy keeps wailing. Four long minutes have passed.

"It's check-in time," says Ms. Heart. Checking in involves each kid saying hello to the others in a song and then finding his or her hand-printed name on one board and moving it to its proper place on another. Given how hard it was to get them seated, I can't believe she's letting them up again, but I soon see, in example after example, that this willingness to skate close to the edge is exactly why Ms. Heart is such a great teacher. She isn't satisfied with quiet kids or kids all in a row; she wants the kids learning, not behaving. Learning means taking risks, and Ms. Heart demands courage and persistence from her assistants and the kids.

Although it's nearly impossible to keep anyone's attention for more than a few seconds, Ms. Heart manages to get the whole group to start singing "Old MacDonald." She scampers down the line during the song, making eye contact with each child, acting out the animals, and even getting the wailing boy to stop as he considers how a chicken clucks. "Excuse me," Ms. Heart says several times to first one child and then another who attempts to leave his seat in the middle of mooing or baaing. "We're at work here." It's 8:37.

In another few minutes, each child has moved to a separate station. Two do discrete trial training, each with his own assistant. Two work up front, performing tasks according to a method called TEACCH. One listens to music through earphones, one learns the sounds of letters, and one plays with cars and trucks on a mat. The TEACCH kids have ten to fifteen trays stacked to the left of their desks. Each tray contains a different task: a jigsaw puzzle, boards on which letters or numbers must be matched to a printed likeness, blocks that must be put into holes of the right shape. Once the child finishes the puzzle, he puts the tray into a basket to his right, then picks up another from the stack on the left. Despite its appearance, says Ms. Heart, the method doesn't teach puzzle-solving or even staying on-task, though those are secondary gains. What it really teaches is finishing.

The concept that something is finished, that something can stop, is almost impossible to grasp for autistic kids, who tend to drift rudderless until they can find a repetitive motion, phrase, or thought to which they can attach. When that repetitive motion presents itself, it's comforting, something to anchor to. The primary job of Ms. Heart and her assistants is to tear out that anchor and to keep the child focused on what's happening not in his head, but in the classroom, on the task at hand. Otherwise, the child -- more slang -- is "self-stimming," that is, engaging in self-stimulation. And that means he's lost.


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