I recently became aware of a news story out of Towson University, in Maryland. A student there was interning (student teaching) at Thomas Johnson Elementary School in Baltimore City, and she reported witnessing teachers verbally and physically abusing children with autism. The principal of the school immediately attempted to discredit her claims by saying that this student has Asperger's Syndrome and was "mentally deficient and probably lying," and her advisors at Towson questioned her story. The final nail in the coffin was the Dean of Education telling her to stop talking about the incident altogether (Click here to read the full story).
As a student in a Masters degree program in Applied Behavior Analysis, one of my requirements in my first year was to do classroom "observations" at partner schools here in New Jersey.
It was a crisp Fall morning in 2007. I drove down the Garden State Parkway somewhat nervously, having just gotten my license the month before. After signing in at the main office, I made my way through the beige-painted hallway, the walls periodically dotted with the students' brightly-colored artwork.
I sat in a blue chair, the hard plastic pressed against my thighs as I surveyed the self-contained classroom before me. Small wooden cubbies containing coats, knapsacks, and carefully packed lunch boxes lined the wall, and various toys and other objects lay scattered across the carpeted floor. Several pieces of chalk sat idly in a tray beneath the blackboard, and I resisted the urge to pick one up and smell it.
The children made noise, as children so often do, sometimes so shrill and loud that I had to hold my ears. I've never felt particularly at ease around children, but knowing that they were on the spectrum--knowing that I was once them, and in some ways, still am--gave me a small measure of comfort.
Yes, in case you didn't know: I have Asperger's Syndrome.
When I was applying for graduate school, the decision of disclosing the diagnosis was one I did not hesitate on. I stated it outright, both in my written application and during the in-person interview. I believed that it would be an asset, to have a firsthand perspective that I could add to class discussions and use to help my fellow classmates better understand the students with whom they work on a daily basis.
It took a great many years for me to see having Asperger's Syndrome in such a light. To view it as a positive, rather than a negative. And here I was, walking into this completely new environment, unwilling to disguise a diagnosis that had been such an integral part of my being accepted into that environment in the first place.
I was fortunate, yes, where so many others are not. When I imagine being treated as the young woman in this story was treated--her credibility tarnished, her good name dragged through the muck--I am pained beyond the description of words. I am stirred, furious, into an ardor of righteousness, because I know that if I had seen what she had seen, I also would have been moved to report it.
So why should what she says, or what I say, or what anyone else with Asperger's Syndrome say, be so harshly discredited? Indeed, the most laughable part of this entire debacle is the school's principal saying that because of this young woman's condition, she was "probably lying." There is a sad irony to an authority figure whose charges include students on the autism spectrum completely and utterly failing to understand one of the most frequent hallmarks of ASDs, which is the near inability to lie.
People on the autism spectrum are said to be extremely honest, sometimes even brutally so, and that lying is a social event in which they will not and/or cannot engage. For me, it was simply that I never saw any point in lying. I may not have always been so tactful when I was younger, but it was never because I intended to hurt anyone or meant any harm. I have learned how to frame my honesty in a proper context, but never have I diluted it.
I do not believe this young woman would do so, either, and in fact would be more moved to seek justice for the terrible treatment visited upon these students by the very people who are meant to be taking care of them. Because how close did she perhaps come to being one of them? How close did I come? And just as I had no one to speak for me, these children also have no one to speak for them.
The school principal and the members of this young woman's department at Towson, by their actions, sought to silence her voice--and, in turn, silence the voices of these children. There can be no defending them, no rationalizing or logic-ing their deeds away.
How can we expect these children to value themselves if the adults around them are so clearly demonstrating that they do not value them? I spent too many years believing I was not a person worth loving, or having as a friend, as a student, a daughter. Too many years believing I was not a person at all, and that vicious trap is what awaits these kids and so many others if things do not begin to change.
This young woman is one of the voices of change, one that I hope will be able to speak up loudly and proudly, rising from the ashes of the two schools' disgraceful actions. I hope she does go on to become a special education teacher and give students with ASDs and other developmental disabilities the support and encouragement they need--the very same support the education department at Towson so astoundingly failed to show her during their gross mishandling of this entire matter.
For the hope of a better future for all: Stop the abuse, stop the cover-up, stop the deliberate spread of misinformation. Let the truth ring out.