For autistic students, few things can be as disrupting as change: a new classroom, a new teacher, a new school, or any other major change in the learning environment can be devastating. Students who are doing well can face major setbacks as they try to adjust to changes, and the results can be stressful for students, teachers and parents.
In Philadelphia, as in many cities across the United States, the school district has historically freely allowed schools to move autistic students around in what’s known as the “autism shuffle,” but that just changed, thanks to a class action lawsuit.
Here’s how the autism shuffle happens: a student gets assigned to a given classroom or teacher, and then a school decides that it can’t provide the support a student needs. Consequently, it determines that the best thing to do is to transfer the student, but this happens without warning to the parents or the student, resulting in an education where students might move at any time, for no obvious reason. This would be frustrating for any student, but especially for autistic students, who can feel abandoned, neglected, or simply confused by constant changes in their environments.
For example, a student moving up a grade might be moved to a different school on the grounds that her current school doesn’t have autism support for students in the higher grade. Abruptly, she’s yanked out of the environment she knows, taken away from her friends, and removed from the influence of the teachers and staff who mentored her at her old school. At her new school, she feels out of her element and isn’t familiar with the setting, and a result, she might start to act out, and could experience a regression in her education, development of social skills and other progress.
For autistic students, this was highly unfair, and it was stressful for parents, too. Having their children moved without warning meant having to explain the situation to their kids, arrange for transportation to a new school, and learn the ropes at the new school, including school policies and procedures. Students didn’t get a chance to enjoy consistent contact with educators and staff, while teachers who formed connections with students were forced to see them go with no opportunity for followup.
Parents got fed up with this, and they filed suit. The outcome of the suit mandates that the school district must tell parents and teachers if their children are going to be transferred by January, to give them time to prepare for a change of school in fall. Furthermore, the district must publish a list of autism resources, including classrooms and schools equipped to handle autistic children. Parents also have the right to meet with administrators and officials to talk about any proposed change of school.
This suit is likely to set a precedent, thanks to the rising number of autistic children in the school system. As parents become fierce advocates on the part of their children, they’re taking note of cases like these and their outcome, with the goal of working with their own school districts to create a better educational environment for autistic students.
Photo credit: www.audio-luci-store.it.