By Dalia Shkedy—Ethan’s Mom
When Ethan first started High School, I was in his class for most of the time as I was training the assistants how to teach Ethan using my program. One day, unexpectedly, two special needs boys from the severe to moderate class came into the classroom. One was pushing a large black garbage can to collect the regular garbage and the other boy was pushing a large blue garbage can to collect the recyclable garage.
The teacher who was supervising them showed the boys how to collect the garbage and then praised them, saying “good job.” I didn’t see the boys smiling back; they were just doing their “jobs.” My heart was racing and I was so upset to watch this happening. The other kids in the classroom were a mix of less severe special needs kids, and they watched these two boys collecting the garbage with huge pity in their eyes.
When Ethan was in Middle School, the teacher insisted that we add jobs to his responsibilities even though he was supposed to be following my curriculum. She even went as far as to prepare binders with a schedule of jobs that Ethan was supposed to do during his week at school.
These are the jobs that she wanted Ethan to do as part of the “Life Skills” program: (1) Shredding paper (2) Cleaning desks with wipes (3) Sweeping the floor with a broom (4) Vacuuming the carpet (5) Collecting garbage (6) Cooking (7) Washing dishes (8) Doing laundry.
Of course, I did not agree to allow Ethan to do any of the jobs and even put that he wasn’t allowed to do so on his IEP. One week when his regular one on one teacher was sick, the substitute was so proud to tell me that Ethan had done so well with his shredding, vacuuming and cleaning. I was in shock because I didn’t agree to it but it was still part of Ethan’s daily jobs. Now you understand why I was upset to see the other two boys coming to collect the garbage. I watched them and all I was thinking was what would have happened if I had let them do that to Ethan.
The Life Skills program really starts in “full force” when kids with autism get into middle school (around 12 years of age.) It is at that point that the teachers give up on having any expectation of these kids finishing high school because they didn’t achieve any of their previous academic goals.
It all boils down to expectations. A professor at Harvard (Prof. Rosenthal) has studied the effects of teacher expectation on the performance of their students. He found that when the teacher had low expectations, the students performed poorly regardless of their abilities. The same is true for autistic children. If we have low expectations of their abilities (that they are only good for Life Skills) their performance will reflect our expectations.
It reminds me of the early 1950s and 1960s when the “party line” was all girls were destined to be homemakers and that the school only needed to teach them “homemaker skills.” They would learn sewing, cooking, cleaning, and how to do the laundry; and parents would get updates on how much the girls enjoyed doing these wonderful tasks with determination, passion, and smiles on their faces! Because that is all that women were capable of. And this is after the work we’ve put into breaking the glass ceiling! It’s about time we break the autism glass ceiling.
To predetermine that the only job in the world our kids are fit for are menial cleaning jobs, and from that predetermination to stop them from receiving an actual education, is completely wrong.