No More “Autism Shuffle” In Philadelphia

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.

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Carole C.
Carole Cherne3 years ago

Children, especially those on the autism spectrum, require consistency and need to know about changes in advance. I am glad the parents won their lawsuit.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

ty for this important article

Alex Perea
Alex Perea3 years ago

There is nothing more upsetting to an autistic child (or adult!) than a sudden and unannounced disruption in routine. I can only imagine how badly these students' progress may have been set back by a trauma like that.

Autistic children may require days or even weeks to prepare even for a GOOD surprise (such as a holiday, or birthday party, etc). And it can take them much longer to form any kinds of social bonds, whether that be with teachers or peers. When they do successfully form a relationship, even if the 'relationship' is as simple as having someone they feel less anxious around or knows how to calm them down from a meltdown, that relationship should be cherished for the important milestone it is. Having that familiarity torn away is terrifying for an autistic child, and they may very well lock themselves down and the new adults in their life will be starting from a very hard place.

It is not always easy to provide adequate support for those on the autistic spectrum in mainstream schools, and there may be certain occasions where changes and transfers DO have to made. These should be as rare as possible, and if they DO have to happen, the student and their family should be given warning as far in advance as possible so that they are able to prepare, and given as much support to transition as can be afforded.

Steven G.
Steven G3 years ago

An autistic child, given the chance, can often teach the teacher what the teacher can't teach; and that is compassion.

Rb R.
Rb Redmond3 years ago

Prayers their needs are met, regardless the circumstances. NO ONE is comfortable with being jerked around without warning, why think these children would be???

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

As my wife's area of expertise, was special ed. theres two sides to this coin.

The new buzzword now in education is mainlining.

Parents want their kids to be included in regular classes.

So now instead of a "special" school, to care for the special needs kids.

Parents want every school in the district to be equipped to care for them.

Because there is the potential to have a special needs kid in every one of them.

This isn't really in the best interest of either the schools, or the students.

All because the parents want their children to be treated like everyone else, when they're not.

Kathy Niell
Kathryn Niell3 years ago

If we are really going to help autistic children, it must be on their terms, not those dictated by an insensitive school system.

Robin Pasholk
Robin Pasholk3 years ago

Having been majorly jerked around by a school 'system' that decided it couldn't deal with a student who was not only a women's libber, but smarter than she "should have" been given her parents' background and income, I am entirely on the side of ANY student who is being jerked around rather than given an appropriate education--and "appropriate" is defined by the student's educational needs, not by what the school system thinks is least expensive and therefore right.

Kamia T.
Kamia T3 years ago

Once I realized that all of my children were somewhere on the autistic or Asperger spectrum, I decided to sacrifice material wealth and make sure they had private tutors and/or were kept in small private schools where I could easily communicate with and impact teachers, assignments and class movement. It was a hard road, but the results are that all the kids are successful and independent, so it was worth it.