Children on the autism spectrum were some of my favorite students when I was a school principal. I came to love the unvarnished honesty that characterized so many of them.
I can remember a first day of school when I was introduced to a new student who happened to be on the autism spectrum. I’ll call him, “Joe.” I said, “Hey, Joe! I’m Mr. Roemer. It’s nice to meet you, to which he replied, ‘You have freakishly big eyes.’ ”
What can I say? I have freakishly big eyes.
Then it was my assistant principal’s turn. She was dressed in a beautiful orange outfit. She introduced herself to Joe, who mentioned she looked like a tangerine, and asked her, “Is that the look you were going for?”
Joe wasn’t being rude or insolent, and he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was simply being observant.
Getting to know and to understand students is always job one for any educator. Investing the time necessary in getting to know students who are on the autism spectrum is particularly important. Teachers who do quickly learn the students are gifted in ways that may not be readily apparent. But if a teacher can’t see past what makes a child different, they will never discover what makes them great.
Given the opportunity, I suspect most children on the autism spectrum would design a world that operates very differently than the world in which they are forced to live. For many, their world would be a lot quieter. The conventions governing how we relate with one another would be different, too. It would be a much more literal and rules-oriented place with a high degree of consistency and predictability.
From my perspective, the biggest challenge facing kids on the autism spectrum is not that they have autism, but that they are forced to live in a world that was designed by people who don’t.
Every child has their own strengths and weaknesses. Every child learns differently, has their own personality, comes from a unique home environment and has their own personal experience with schools and teachers. Every child socializes differently. Some are outgoing, some are shy, some are bold, some careful, some are independent, some require more attention and some are resilient while others don’t bounce back so easily.
Billy’s a visual learner. Carla is an auditory learner. Troy learns best by moving around and using his hands. Cai seems disengaged, but hears and remembers every word you say. Tommy likes to work in groups, while Jayla works best alone. It is a teacher’s job to accommodate these learning styles and preferences.
Customizing lessons and creating a environment that meets the unique learning needs of every student is a monumental task.
All this makes me wonder why we are not more open to school choice. Right now, we have a one-size-fits-all approach. Public schools, by and large, are run using the same basic design.
Any customization based on individual student need falls squarely on the shoulders of teachers who are forced to work in an environment driven more by government conformity than by what benefits students.
Wealthy parents are able to shop to find the school that best meets the needs of their children. Maybe that is the local public school, but maybe it’s a Monterssori School instead. Perhaps it’s the parochial school at St. John’s, or one of the county’s Christian Academies. Maybe homeschooling is the best choice, or perhaps it’s Springdale Preparatory School in New Windsor.
There are schools like Gerstell Academy, and up the road, McDonough, Calvert Hall and a host of other private institutions available to parents of means.
But if you’re poor, you get what the government gives you. If the public school model is not right for your child, that’s the way it goes, and if your child’s local school happens to be lousy, oh well.
If, as Democrats claim, the poor and traditionally disadvantaged families are a core constituency of their party, they are failing that constituency in a very fundamental way by denying them the same educational choices available to families better off financially.
Too often, economically disadvantaged children are prisoners of the school the government tells them they must attend, whether that school is effectively meeting their needs or not. In so doing, they are condemning these children to a life of economic hardship and deprivation, which is why I cannot understand how Democrats can be comfortable with the position they have staked out regarding how children are educated.
Each student is different, but for some reason we try to fit them all in the same box. For many, it’s like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
Our goal as a society should be to find the right path for every student. I think it’s abundantly clear for many students, that path does not run through the public school system. But the way things stand now, alternatives to public schools are only available to the privileged.
I’m not sure who that benefits. Certainly not the kids, and we all pay a price when we fail to adequately educate a child.
Chris Roemer is a retired banker and educator who resides in Finksburg. He can be contacted at email@example.com