Henry Frost had a pretty simple goal: he wanted to go to school like any other kid. Unfortunately, his Tampa, Florida school district put some obstacles in his way, claiming that the autistic student should attend a specialized education program rather than mainstreaming at Wilson Middle School. Frost and his service dog, Denzel, didn’t take the district’s suggestion lying down.
Frost has several health conditions, including his autism, which interfere with his ability to communicate, and he relies on an iPad to interact with the people around him. His familiarity with technology turned out to be a boon when his school district told him he didn’t belong in a conventional classroom, because he was able to harness the power of social media to reach out for help. With the publication of a picture that went around the world, he publicized his plight and also raised awareness about discrimination against disabled students in general, many of whom are forced into segregated programs against their wishes.
Henry’s battle for civil rights was also informed by the growing autistic self-advocacy movement, which puts autistic people square in the center of discussions about advocacy. After watching “Wretches and Jabberers,” a film about autism and self-advocacy, Henry’s way of interacting with the world changed radically, and his parents credit the film with his self-realization that he had a voice, could use it and had a right to participate in discussions about his education and life.
He took to the streets during the Republican National Convention to draw awareness to disability rights, a particularly critical issue right now due to threats to funding for disability services across the U.S., and he connected through social media with fans all over the world who became interested in his cause, including fellow self-advocates like Ari Ne’eman. Frost is one of the faces of a new generation of autistic people who refuse to remain silent and sit by the sidelines while decisions are made about them and people talk over them. He prefers to be square in the middle of the conversation.
In an interview with reporter Ariane Zurcher at the Huffington Post, he noted one of the major complaints disabled people, particularly those with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, have about interactions with the nondisabled community:
Please don’t talk about me in front of me. I can hear you. I can read your lips. I can read your body language. It feels terrible. Sad. But it feels great when you treat me like I am smart.
Frost’s statement mirrors the call to action of the disability rights movement: “nothing about us without us.”
His lobbying effort worked: in a 14 hour meeting with the school district to iron out details, he won the right to attend the school of his choice with an aide to assist him in the classroom. An important battle for Henry (and Denzel), but also a signal to autistic students across the country who may be longing for a chance to participate in a mainstream classroom instead of being isolated in a special services program.
Henry asked for his chance, and he got it.
Photo Credit: Autistic savant, author, and speaker Daniel Tammet, by Steve Jurvetson