My oldest son, Jonah, laced up his running shoes and pushed his gym bag over his shoulder on a Saturday morning. He had a track meet at the high school, where he would joke around with friends for hours and get some exercise. Between sports, religious education, clubs, and school dances, his schedule is so packed that I keep track of events on a color-coded calendar on my computer.
After the school bus dropped off my younger son at 4:00 p.m., he raced through his homework. The rest of the night was spent on the computer making music with GarageBand or getting the high score on Plants v. Zombies. When it was time to pick up Jonah, he sweetly got into the car. Picking up his older brother from activities is part of his routine. There are no sports or clubs or after-school events on his calendar. Ian has autism.
Public schools are struggling to keep up with the growing number of students with autism. Nationwide, one in 68 individuals are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (a new diagnosis in the DSM-5 that encompasses five previous diagnoses, ranging from Rett syndrome to Asperger’s). In New Jersey, where we live, the rate is extremely high—one in 28 boys. The recent hike in rates is probably due to increased recognition and professional diagnosis of kids with high-functioning autism.
Schools have the moral and legal responsibility to fold these kids into the lives of their classmates. But it’s also fiscally smart.
Kids with high-functioning autism are usually folded into local public schools, but it’s not easy for these institutions to cope with many of the kids’ unique needs. Some have strong sensitivities. School bells hurt their ears. Crowded hallways are overwhelming. Others struggle with abstract language. For them, making friends is always a challenge. Public schools have trouble with square pegs; kids with autism are perhaps the squarest of pegs.
Of course, a school’s first responsibility is to educate an autistic child, but its responsibility doesn’t end there. Kids with autism also need an equal place in the life of the school. Because they may have deficits in attention, fine and gross motor skills, language impairment, and social skills, autistic kids might not fit into traditional activities. PTA moms, who often run school functions, aren’t trained in these matters. Integrating autistic kids need some coordination and creativity.
At the same time, providing autistic-friendly activities is especially important, because autistic kids don’t have the means to interact informally with friends and neighbors. These kids are not always invited to birthday parties. They often can’t join the kids on the block for a spontaneous game of catch. Without an organized activity, many kids with autism become extremely isolated. Language and social skills suffer.
Last year, the federal government ruled that public schools must give their special needs students “equal access” to extracurricular activities, including clubs and athletics. Barring kids from participation would violate their civil rights. Schools must either provide modified versions of existing activities or create “separate but equal” clubs and athletics.
Schools have the moral and legal responsibility to fold these kids into the lives of their classmates. But it’s also fiscally smart. Making small adjustments within an already functioning public school is much cheaper than the tuition for a private school for autistic children, which can cost as much as $100,000 per year, per student. If school districts can meet the needs of autistic children in local schools, then they will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-district placements.
Over the years, I have seen a few excellent programs that help autistic kids integrate into schools. Other programs remain in the idea phase—dreamed up with other special-ed moms over a bottle of wine, but never implemented.
These are 10 (low-cost!) ideas for creating autism-friendly public schools:
VIDEO GAME ROOM AT SCHOOL DANCES
Middle school and high school dances are difficult for kids on the spectrum. Crowds and loud music can burn out sensory systems. An obsession with Star Trek and the inability to make eye contact is a huge barrier when finding a dance partner. So, perhaps schools can open the computer lab and create a Minecraft room during the dance. The autistic kids will feel like they are part of the scene, albeit from a safe distance.
Community life can center around Little League and soccer games. Kids with autism often struggle with the complexity of team sports. Many have low muscle tone and are unable to play at the same level as their peers. They may not be able to handle the stress of the game. Schools and communities could offer opportunities for light, non-competitive sports—basketball games with lower baskets, baseball games where nobody keeps score, or track meets where everybody gets a medal.
Kids with autism would rather do things than hear about them. So, activities with few lectures from teachers and grown-ups are best. Even better are activities that let them tinker and touch and mix and spill. Cooking. Lego, and art classes are always great. These activities will also appeal to typical kids who don’t enjoy sports or the Scouts.
PIZZA PARTIES & MOVIE NIGHTS
Kids with autism aren’t getting called up for play-dates. They may not ride the same school bus as other kids. So, organized school functions of any kind are helpful. Pizza nights and outdoor movies appeal to all types of kids, on any spectrum. Students with autism in particular need opportunities to hang out of with other kids, rather than spending Friday nights with their computer.
Some school districts provide “shadows” or aides to help the special needs kids blend into school activities. These shadows explain instructions or keep a kid from drifting off into his isolated world. Parents usually have to specifically request this assistance and have this modification formally drafted into the individualized education program (IEP). Perhaps some activities could have a permanent shadow to reduce hurdles for parents. Special needs parents could receive a list of the clubs and activities that have built-in supports.
MINECRAFT & MORE MINECRAFT
Every school should open up the computer lab once a week and let the kids play Minecraft on a server. In my experience, nothing equalizes autistic and typical kids better than Minecraft. A teacher with some autistic training should be in the room to help the kids work cooperatively and mediate conflicts.
AUTISTIC EXCLUSIVE ACTIVITIES
If you’re the square peg, it gets a little tiresome to be constantly shoved into the round hole. Schools could offer an activity that is exclusively for kids on the autistic spectrum and similar special needs. In larger towns where the kids with autism might be spread out in different school buildings, this could provide an opportunity to meet someone else who shares an abiding love of old maps or computer systems. It can be a chance to talk for an hour about Pokémon without fear of boring others. School districts might work cooperatively to provide these clubs to expand the opportunity to meet a like-minded buddy. These clubs might also function as an unofficial support group for parents.
PARENT-ADMINISTRATION OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE
Fostering autistic-friendly activities requires some oversight and coordination. Activities run by parents need extra guidance. A formal committee composed of parents and school administrators could provide this guidance for program organizers. They could also steer special needs families toward appropriate clubs.
HIGH SCHOOL PARTNERSHIP
A friend runs a program where high school kids mentor special needs kids at the bowling alley and on trips to the circus. The high school students receive volunteer credits for their efforts, and some special needs kids are busy and happy. Public schools could replicate this model easily.
ADAPTIVE MUSIC CLUB
Many kids on the autistic spectrum have an intense love of music. However, it is difficult to join the traditional band or orchestra. They might not have the fine motor skills necessary to play their instruments as well as their peers. They may be too spacy to play the correct notes at precisely the right time. Instead, they could learn to play an instrument in a less stressful, less rigid fashion in an after-school club. They might enjoy drum circles or keyboard classes that are taught by patient people.
Public schools can absorb the new cohort of kids with high-functioning autism. It will take some flexibility and coordination, but it can be done.