I recently finished reading the book, Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey Hayden. The book was a vivid and enthralling account of Hayden’s role as a special educator in the lives of four exceptional children. The story took me through a spectrum of emotions from laughing out-loud to at times being gut-wrenchingly painful to read.
While this may not be a surprising accomplishment for any good summer read, this text happens to be required reading for my current graduate program at Stevenson, as part of my Principles of Special Education course. Our class assignment focused around the text was to engage in “the fictional exploration of a special education classroom, the dynamics within the room, and varying needs of the students” by writing this blog post. I was to “ pick one of the students featured in the book and assess their needs and how they could be met in the classroom…as if the student is in your current or future classroom.” The following is my narrative for this assignment.
Boo is a student coming to my middle school math class. I am trying to glean knowledge from his school records to help me prepare for him. Accordingly, he demonstrates many of the same symptoms as students who have been diagnosed with Autism, but has not been evaluated by a physician to determine the presence of any disability. Boo presents as nonverbal. However, he does have episodes of echolalia and makes intermittent patterned sounds or syllables, which are not well interpreted in oral communication. His records show several occurrences where he engaged in direct communication such as choosing specific words in a response rather than just repeating and where he has demonstrated some level of understanding in a verbal response. In addition, his records indicate he has good receptive language, and will respond to some verbal instruction.
Boo is unlike any other student in my classes. Our small private school mostly consists of children who experience above average affluence and have highly educated parents. The school weighs heavily toward a Caucasian population, leaving Boo as one of the few minority students in addition to being the only student with obvious intellectual differences.
The school awards several scholarships to qualifying families in need one of which Boo is a recipient. It was a difficult decision for the administration to grant him admission knowing that he was not going to perform on the level of his peers, and teachers would need to make significant accommodations to include him in class. However, I think it was also obvious that there was no other cause to deny admission other than the undiagnosed intellectual differences, and that was not an acceptable reason to obstruct a student’s access to our school.
Meeting his mother, you could tell that she has been struggling all of Boo’s life to find an environment both tolerant of him and able to meet his educational, social and emotional needs. You could see an almost equal balance of love and fear in her as she described Boo and her expectations of him and us at our school. She was proud of the growth Boo had accomplished through elementary school, which made me curious about what his past relationships with his teachers and the activities he in engaged were like then. She was concerned about his transition into middle school, especially with regard to the changing social dynamics of this age group. Despite her reluctance, she valued him being fully integrated with his peer age group, even while knowing their goals and achievements would significantly differ.
I was uncertain how to prepare for Boo coming to class. I felt obligated to precondition my ‘normal’ students and establish ground rules to ensure appropriate treatment of Boo. However, this approach felt so uncomfortable I opted rather for a simple announcement that, ‘We’ll be welcoming a new student to class. You may recognize that he is different in ways you haven’t seen before, and its okay to be curious and I’ll answer questions as best as I can. Though, just as I’ve done for all of you I am also trying to get to know our new student, and I won’t always have the answers for you. I do know he feels joy and sadness and other emotions just the way we do, and that kindness and friendship are important to him the same way they are to us.’
I invited Boo and his mother to visit the class after school hours before his first day, so that when he joined the class maybe he’d have fewer new things to process. During that visit, he took great interest in a clear plastic ball I have where the object is to move a small ball around a maze by turning the outer plastic ball. He was not interested in practicing the skills or strategy involved in meeting those objectives, but he seemed to enjoy the sounds he could make with it by gently turning it back and forth. I asked his mother to help me choose a seat in the class for him where he’d be most comfortable. I, also, needed to orient him somewhere that afforded me the flexibility to get to him quickly and limit distraction to the class. We chose a seat nearest to the door and my teacher area. We agreed this would allow me the best access to him and allow him the easiest access in and out of the room.
When Boo finally joined us, I was very nervous. I did my best to balance recognition of my current students curiosity and his not feeling like an alien landing on foreign planet. I did not want to make him feel the center of attention, but wanted him to feel welcome and give him an opportunity to learn about his new classmates. I showed him his seat (the one that his mother and I chose earlier and had previously introduced him to), where I had placed the ball that he had taken an interest to in our earlier meeting. He seemed to recognize the ball, but was reluctant to get that close to his peers. I suggested he sit when he was ready and that he was welcome to get the ball.
My students’ desks are arranged in a series of groups of four. Throughout a class, my students may change desks several times while transitioning to different activities. My first significant accommodation for Boo came in the form of modifying this transition. Boo had his own seat, and it would remain his seat unless he chose to move. He would not be expected to shift groups with the rest of the class, and others would not occupy his seat while he was there (even if he wasn’t sitting at the time). I hoped that this would provide some consistency and security for Boo, and maybe allow him to develop a sense of ownership in his new environment.
I modified the types of and access to the manipulative tools in the classroom. Some items that could withstand rough, unstructured explorations are always left within reach of Boo. Sometimes I could use the tools as opposed to smaller or more fragile ones that required greater dexterity. For example, Boo could use one-inch plastic unit cubes, as opposed to the smaller centimeter cubes in base 10 modeling sets. He could use this on his own or in 1-1 direct instruction with me; or he could use them while his classmates modeled with base 10 sets and possibly learn to mimic their modeling.
I had read about Boo’s exploratory behaviors in his records. I read that in addition to touch, he used his senses of taste and smell to learn about his surroundings, and sometimes in ways that were not easily accepted socially or at least not very hygienic. I wanted to give Boo as many sensory experiences in the classroom as I could. I knew he wouldn’t be solving equations or applying geometric formulas with us, but I wanted him to be immersed in the activity of learning even if not with the same content objectives as his peers.
I would implement or design projects that would involve all of my students in using their senses to engage with the content. We would prepare recipes while exploring fractions, scale and measurement conversions, and Boo would have specific tasks throughout the project including the ‘official taste tester’. We would take our learning outside and exercise large motor skills (e.g. measuring speed and velocity using distance and time formulas as students participated in relay races). Boo may not fully participate in all the activities, but he may enjoy the excitement with his peers and practice verbal and nonverbal communication through sportsmanship, while hearing the infused math vocabulary. Boo’s records indicated that at times he would self-stimulate through spinning with his arms outstretched, and that he saw being chased as a game. Our outdoor learning activities could include and allow these activities where they weren’t disruptive and needing to be shut down.
My goal was to create an environment for all of my students where Boo was just as much a part of the community as they were, but wasn’t going to hinder their academic growth or rob them of my attention. Boo had so many previous experiences where he was treated as ‘other’, including a time early in his childhood where he fell from monkey bars and required stitches to repair his tongue and the emergency room physician justified his refusal to administer anesthetic with the claim, “These people, they have no real feelings.” I knew meeting Boo’s needs in the classroom involved more than just lesson planning and required an approach that was cultural and valued engaging people with intellectual (or any type of) differences.
In this idealized narrative of how I would handle a Boo in my classroom, I’m not naive to the reality that there are possibilities (rather likelihoods) beyond my control that will require me to respond in ways for which I won’t be prepared. At one point in the story, Torey said “If I could get him to sit down and be quiet a few moments, he would calm down.”, and at the time I saw this as ‘good for him’ and while trying to process my approach I think that would really be ‘good for me’. I will need to be cognizant of the times where Boo is ‘behaving’ in the tasks or activities I’ve engaged him in that suit my needs, rather than learning and growing through meaningful activities that suit his needs.
There will be times when Boo will refuse to cooperate, behave disruptively and I won’t be able to buffer my other students from his expression. We will all have to learn this about him (similarly to how we already do with anyone we develop relationships with) and define and create boundaries for ourselves. Just as much as my original inclination was to protect Boo from the reactions of my existing students, I need to protect them from Boo’s. This needs to be done in a way that doesn’t cast judgment or define anyone’s response as wrong or bad.
I haven’t, yet, had a Boo as a student, but I have had the honor of having Boo’s in my life. While I wouldn’t wish the struggles related to autism on anyone, I am fascinated by the individuals and the families who live with them everyday. Autistic children and adults still have not gained the understanding and acceptance they’re entitled to in society, and schools are vital in providing the needed advocacy toward this end.