Myths and Stereotypes in Special Education

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Social Emotional Teaching Strategies

I’m about to stick my toe into murky waters, but it seems fitting just after Halloween.

Any discussion of special education must begin with a true understanding of the enormity of the subject. I could write blog posts about it every day for the rest of my life and never run out of subjects to explore, so bear with me while I explore a non-scientific corner.

I’m a big fan of Stephen King, especially his early books like The Stand, Carrie, Christine, etc. He is a master storyteller and reading one of his books is most often a rewarding experience.

In 2002, he wrote a television miniseries called Rose Red. It’s about a psychology professor who takes a group of psychically talented people to a haunted house in Seattle. If you picture House on Haunted Hill, that’s a good place to start, but Rose Red is in a category all its own.

In the story, Annie, a 15-year-old autistic and psychic girl, is brought along to ignite the house’s dormant ghosts into action. She is reported to have telekinetic and telepathic abilities that will be sure to help the professor establish her assertions that haunting does happen and the unseen world is rich with research possibilities. Early in the story, it’s clear that Annie does have amazing abilities to make connections with the unseen world. Strange things begin to happen, too numerous to mention here.

There has long been a school of thought in the study of autism that people on the spectrum have a connection with the paranormal that others lack. The Internet is loaded with sites that try to establish this connection. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, you can see the dangers that lie in the path of this kind of thinking. Has anyone ever really proven that ghosts exist? Why haven’t searchers been able to document their existence (on film, etc.) other than seeing shadows and hearing doors close on their own? Those are just a couple of the dangers.

The other greater problem is the need to put people in groups so we can describe them. Like all autistic children, Annie is an individual; her social interaction and communication challenges lie on a spectrum. In deference to Mr. King, he is merely trying to move a fiction forward in an entertaining and hopefully believable way. He respects Annie’s theoretical abilities and does little damage to the field of education or psychology, but it’s with a wink and a nod.

For teachers, it’s in our best interest to be sure that people don’t grab on to theories like these and try to use them to bolster personal beliefs. We can all agree that these beliefs are a private matter and deserve respect. However, discussions about autism must stay on a track that is proven and scientifically determined. How else can we provide kids with a great education?

Likewise, are children with developmental disabilities really more affectionate and loving than other children? (This is a stereotype I’ve encountered.)

Annie ends up saving the day, of course, releasing the trapped paranormal investigators from a house that has taken on a malevolent life of its own. We are entertained, and reminded of the literary skills of Stephen King; he has done it again, brought us through a complex story to a satisfying conclusion. We can turn off the TV and return to our scientific reality.

I’ve made a list of some websites that explore the idea that autistic children may have psychic talents. I tried to stay with credible source material, but that’s becoming more difficult too.

Autism and the God Connection

Time Magazine Interview

“Are Autistic and Psychic People Similar?” – Psychology Today

Research? (Question mark mine)

Indigo Children – ABC News Report

Once again, I could write much more on this topic. I hope you will forgive my flight into fuzzy territory, as it relates to special education. Tell me your stories of stereotype busting.


Grant Name: Educational Grants

Funded By: The Ambrose Monell Foundation

Description: Giving on a national basis to improve the physical, mental, and moral condition of humanity throughout the world. Giving largely for hospitals and health services, scientific research, museums, performing arts, and other cultural activities, and higher and secondary education; support also for social services, research in political science, mental health, and aid to the handicapped. No grants to individuals.

Program Areas: Adult Literacy, Disabilities, General Education, Health/PE, Math, Reading, Science/Environmental, Social Studies, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)

Eligibility: Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline: 4/30/2015

Annual Total Amount: $9,000,000.00

Average Amount: $5,000.00 – $100,000.00

Address: c/o Fulton, Rowe, & Hart, 1 Rockefeller Plz., Ste. 301, New York, NY 10020-2002

Telephone: 212-245-1863

E-mail: info@monellvetlesen.org

Website: The Ambrose Monell Foundation

Availability: All States

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First Day of School: Here We Go Again

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Every year, it never fails. The last days of August go by and that tickly feeling in my stomach starts. Mine includes a little thud at the end of 20 seconds of elevated heart rate. The thud part is generally located in my mid-section. I have never seen a doctor for this phenomenon because I know it is an automatic healthy response to the coming of a new school year.

Daily Organizer

Over the years, I have developed a fail-safe to-do list that I review before I go in to the school building and tackle the job of putting my classroom back together again. Inevitably, well-meaning custodial staff have once again moved everything despite my explicit instructions not to. The floors will sparkle (careful here, they’re slippery). I’ve always wondered why they don’t mix sand in the wax; it would save many cases of sacroiliac joint dysfunction—this is a fancy medical term for “oh my aching back.” If you are smiling at this description, I have met my goal for the article.

The first day comes and goes, and not once have I experienced the cataclysmic disasters my fertile imagination produces each and every year. I don’t lose any students, the one-to-one aides are really great people and they don’t add work to my special education routine. We’re good to go.

At the top of my list are supplies (disclosure: this blog is a product of Achievement Products®, a wonderful one stop shopping site for all your classroom needs). This year, I’ve been taking a close look at allergen free products. Is it my imagination, or are kids coming to us with more violent allergies? Peanut allergies are common, and so many food products have been made in facilities where peanuts are used that it really pays to read labels carefully. Our kids have enough challenges without facing allergies in the classroom.

There are now all sorts of hypoallergenic markers, crayons, paints and glue for students to use. There are even hypoallergenic balls and other playground items. It’s going to become my practice to add the word “hypoallergenic” to every search I do for supplies no matter where I decide to shop. Better safe than sorry. And if you’re like me, the purchasing process in your district is so convoluted and difficult that you always use some of your own money to outfit your classroom.

It seems I see more and more kids with perceptual disorders. There are some thoughtful products for these kids at very reasonable prices. Here are some new arrivals for you to explore.

I’ve been adding to my collection of exercise items in the classroom. Even if I don’t have children with specific physical disabilities, I have many overweight children and students who rarely get outdoors for fresh air and exercise. It seems they are all playing video games. Video games can be good training for some children, but you must also get them up and moving.

Achievement Products has a carefully selected group of adaptive technology items for the classroom. There are also products for students with communication challenges.

So when you wake up on day one, don’t reach for Pepto-Bismol. You’re just having first day jitters—perfectly normal. I’ve put together some resources for new and experienced teachers as they face the all-important first few days of school.

New Teachers, New School

Checklist

Practical Advice for Jitters

Survival Guide for New (All) Teachers

Creating a Teacher Mentoring Program

Special Education Teacher Support

Add to our list of resources, help guide this blog and tell me about your challenges. I may feature your class or school in upcoming blog entries.


Grant Name: Finish Line Youth Foundation Grants

Funded By: Finish Line Youth Foundation

Description: Giving on a national basis in areas of company operations, supporting organizations involved with athletics and youth development. Special emphasis is directed toward programs designed to promote active lifestyles and team building skills; and camps designed to promote sports and active lifestyles, and serve disadvantaged and special needs kids.

Program Areas: After-School, Disabilities, Health/PE, Special Education

Eligibility: Other

Proposal Deadline: Ongoing

Annual Total Amount: $200,000.00 – $500,000.00

Average Amount: $1,000.00 – $50,000.00

Address: 3308 North Mitthoeffer Road, Indianapolis, IN 46235-2332

Telephone: 317-899-1022 x6741

E-mail: Youthfoundation@finishline.com

Website: Finish Line Youth Foundation

Availability: All States

The Five Most Common Reasons for SPED Referral

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

hands filing

Over the years, the labels we use to describe special education students have changed. When I was in Special Education 101 (I’m really dating myself), we used to call developmentally disabled children retarded. Even worse, we split the kids into Mild, Moderate, and Severe categories. This was happening at the same time as “mainstreaming”. We understood that the least restrictive environment for all children was the way to go, but we muddied the issue by splitting kids into groups.

To some extent, we still do that. It’s important to be able find language to describe our children. We can’t provide special assistance if we can’t inform people about why it’s needed.

We’ve found there are five types of learning problems that students have that cause us to take a second look and refer them for special education assessment.

  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Autism
  • Disorders of Hearing, Sight and Physical Disability
  • Emotional Disturbance

I am guessing at the order, there are probably numbers to tell us which of these is the most common, but I don’t have them handy. It really doesn’t matter; these areas of concern have created a bureaucracy of support for special education that is costly and complex. The bureaucracy has developed because of Public Law 94-142, the legislation mandating the least restrictive environment for educational services.

Today, most disabled students can be helped in resource rooms, or classrooms that pull students out for a period during the day for special education. There are however, substantially separate classrooms for students with severe problems. These are the students who have a one on one aide that help them with toileting, physical therapy, and other services we must provide by law.

School Committees all over the country bemoan the cost of these provisions, but at the end of the day, it’s an investment in our future. All students need the best we can give, regardless of cost.

Another part of the law is the requirement that parents be part of the team that outlines the type and duration of any services their children will receive. Schools may have different names for the teams, but it’s usually called the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized in 2004, there were changes regarding IEP team members. Parents must be included, but there are others invited to team meetings including the classroom teacher, district administrators and others who are charged with providing services. Meetings occur two times each year, and amendments are made to treatment plans (individual education plans). For instance, parents can request that their children have special equipment. A tool called “Kurzweill” is commonly requested. This software reads aloud for the student and assists struggling readers. Students may also have readers during testing.

I’ve talked a lot about behaviors in classrooms and the costs we incur in our efforts to help at risk students. We can’t forget about the students with the most serious disabilities. Even though we may have substantially separate classrooms for some, this does not mean marginalization. In modern schools, every attempt is made to pull these children into everyday activities in the community at large.

Do you have questions for me? My readers answer more questions than they pose, but I welcome your involvement in this blog.


Grant Name: Serves Grants

Funded By: United States Tennis Association (USTA)

Description: Awarded to nonprofit organizations that support efforts in tennis and education to help disadvantaged, at-risk youth and people with disabilities. To qualify for a USTA Serves Grant, your organization must: Provide tennis programs for underserved youth, ages 5-18, with an educational* component OR Provide tennis programs for people with disabilities (all ages) with a life skills component for Adaptive Tennis programs.

Program Areas: Public School, Private School, Other

Eligibility: Disabilities, Health/PE

Proposal Deadline: 10/18/2014

Address: 70 West Red Oak Lane White Plains, NY 10604

Telephone: 914-696-7175

E-mail: materasso@usta.com

Website: United States Tennis Association

Availability: All States

The Many Faces of Autism

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

pensive baby

When I began my special education teaching career, the term autism really referred to one set of characteristics, a child with the stereotypical head banging and self-stimulation behaviors (hands flapping in front of the face). It was the severe problem that everyone could identify without much trouble, at least in schools. Doctors were beginning to identify a range of syndromes that fit in the term “autism”.

The word “autism,” which has been in use for about 100 years, comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self” and describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction, an isolated self.

Autism usually appears during the first three years of life. Some children show signs as early as birth. Others seem to develop normally at first, only to suddenly exhibit symptoms when they are 18 to 36 months old. Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. It knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect a child’s chance of being autistic.

Today, we have names for many different sets of behaviors, Asperger’s syndrome, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), pervasive developmental disorder or PDD, Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. There are arguments among professionals as to which disorders actually represent autism.

No matter how it is described or named, children afflicted with these groups of characteristics have a tough road ahead. Theories abound about causes of autism; there was at one time a theory that an autistic child lacked enough nurturing from his mother. Scientists aren’t certain about what causes ASD, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Some genes have been identified as potential links to the development of autism in an individual.

One symptom common to all types of autism is an inability to communicate and interact with others. Some people with autism are unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language or holding a conversation. Other symptoms linked to autism may include unusual behaviors in any of these areas:

  • interest in objects or special information – you may recall the film “Rain Man” where the autistic adult could barely function in social situations but had superb recall of details and performing mathematical calculations.
  • reactions for sensations
  • physical coordination.

Treatment for autism includes specialized training with behavior interventions, medication, or both. Each case is unique but it is thought that the most effective treatments include participation of the whole family. A specialist will come into the child’s home to develop specific treatments based on their observations of how the family interacts with the child and each other.  As children with autism enter school, they may benefit from targeted social skills training and specialized approaches to teaching.

We know that small numbers of children can eventually become socialized to a degree that allows them to move back into regular classrooms. An Asperger’s Syndrome child has a mild form of the disorder and may never need special education. He is the child who sits by himself at lunchtime or who shows no emotion during movies with animals that suffer or die. Many of the symptoms are so mild that the child is never identified.

In this blog, I will occasionally focus on a specific type of situation that children face when they are identified and recommended for special education services. The range of symptoms and educational deficits presented in classrooms are so complex, that training for teachers in the field has become the most important factor in determining positive outcomes for all students with IEP’s. Teachers may wish to divert from their education training to take a more clinical route, and select jobs in clinics and hospitals. Their training becomes more like that for a physician’s assistant and their interests may then become testing and assessment of special education in schools and other facilities.

It is a growth industry and there will always be a need for qualified and talented special education teachers. Today, with medical advances students arrive at our doors with a myriad of medical problems that in the earlier days would have killed them. An example of that is low birth weight and premature children who used to die in the first hours of their lives, but are now saved and brought into the community.

For more information about careers in special education, contact the Council for Exceptional Education.

Comment on the blog, let us know the status of special education in your schools.

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Grant Name: Ross Foundation Educational Grants

Funded By: The Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation

Description: Giving on a national basis to advance the moral, mental, and physical well-being of children of all races and creeds; to aid and assist in providing for the basic needs of food, shelter, and education of such children by whatever means and methods necessary or advisable; to prevent by medical research or otherwise the mental and physical handicaps of children. Funding also for the research of pediatric diseases.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, Early Childhood, General Education, Health/PE, Special Education

Eligibility:  Private School, Faith Based, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Ongoing

Annual Total Amount: $400,000.00 – $560,000.00

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $15,000.00

Address: 1036 Monroe Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620

Telephone: 585-473-6006

E-mail: info@dhrossfoundation.org

Website: Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation

Availability:  All States