Edited to add: Please go to Bev’s blog if you want more information on how to try to get them to put a stop to this crap.
PORT ST. LUCIE — Melissa Barton said she is considering legal action after her son’s kindergarten teacher led his classmates to vote him out of class.
After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Barton’s 5-year-old son, Alex, his Morningside Elementary teacher said they were going to take a vote, Barton said.
By a 14 to 2 margin, the class voted him out of the class.
Barton said her son is in the process of being diagnosed with Aspberger’s, a type of high-functioning autism. Alex began the testing process in February for an official diagnosis under the suggestion of Morningside Principal Marsha Cully.
This reminds me forcefully of a warning that Laura Hershey gave a long time ago in her “Crip Commentary” web column, after viewing the series “Survivor” on television.
She went on to write “Survivor” Promotes Ideology of Exclusion:
In the midst of these escalating social conflicts, there now appears a game show — mere harmless entertainment. It’s fun, gossipy — so we don’t question its underlying principles. But the rules of this “game” seem designed not just to reward the winners — that’s an expected part of any game — but especially to punish the losers.
Somehow, I realized, this game seemed eerily familiar to me. I remember exercises I participated in during adolescence — several times at church youth camp, once in a high school class — called “values clarification.” This involved a group discussion about making difficult choices in some hypothetical adverse situation. As I recall, these exercises were supposedly intended to help us understand our own beliefs. That sounds benign, even enlightened. But in reality, I remember I often felt deeply troubled not only by the outcomes of these discussions, but also by their instigation.
A typical example: My peers and I were told to imagine being stranded on a lifeboat, along with an assortment of strangers and a dwindling supply of food and water. Our companions on the boat included a young pregnant woman, a surgeon, an unemployed drifter, an elderly man, a Boy Scout, a woman with cancer, and so on. The setting and the cast of characters varied, but the basic idea was that some people would make it, and some people wouldn’t — and that it was up to us to decide, based on what we thought of the relative value of each fictitious person.
I never had much to say during these discussions. When they were over, I often had a queasy feeling that stayed with me for several days. I never fully understood why, until much later, as an adult. I gradually came to understand that these so-called “values clarification” exercises were based on a preordained set of values, which I could not accept. The games assumed that there weren’t enough resources to go around; and that some people have more value, more right to live and to consume resources, than others do.
I remember the same queasy feeling when watching the show “The Weakest Link” — which functions like an ultra-crisp, ultra-efficient version of “Survivor”. People are voted off each round, and when they are they are told, “You are the weakest link — goodbye.” It’s like a distilled essence of social darwinism. And people seem to love it.
And people seem to learn it practically from the cradle, unless it’s just some kind of awful misguided instinct. The following will be familiar to nearly any autistic person who wasn’t extremely lucky. I’m only picking from my life because it’s easier to remember my own observations than someone else’s.
I can remember being near the age this kid was, and walking onto a playground at school. There seemed to be a lot of fascinating things to climb, so I tried. And was promptly grabbed from all sides and shoved off the structure, to repeated cries of “Amanda’s on the ship!” If I by chance (because I don’t know how else it would’ve happened at the time) drifted into one of the lines that the other girls were always forming — “Anyone who wants to play My Little Ponies, line up!” and so forth — I heard an emphatic and smug “You can’t play”. And I also remember the first kid among this same group of kids who seemed to be nice to me — who was then marched in front of me by another kid and told to repeat, “I don’t like you” to me. She did. That was the end of that. If the words to any of these things were a mystery to me (and all but a tiny number were), the tone of nastiness and exclusion was unmistakable and it happened without fail when I ended up in the path of groups of kids.
And I remember as well that when I was bullied so mercilessly — at an age where I understood far better what was happening — that I was afraid to go to school and lashed out defensively at nearly anyone who tried to interact with me at all, I was the one who got counseling, and I was the one who was talked about by teachers as if there was something wrong with me. And I was the one who had to repeat a grade and change schools. The bullies were left to go on doing their thing, because it was only natural to be nasty and cruel, but wholly unnatural to be terrified of people who acted in this manner. I’m not saying I never did anything wrong, nor that I treated everyone with absolute kindness. Not even close, and I imagine at times I was a nightmare to deal with in my own right. But good grief.
I also remember thinking that I’d finally escaped all that, in my ill-fated attempt at high school. Even years later, I thought that while people had certainly said nasty things to me, I’d gotten off light. Then as an adult I got in touch with James, who’d been one of the kids who was more likely to hang around with me at the time, and who apparently got his own share of grief for even doing that. He told me that he’d been bullied pretty badly in junior high, but that he hadn’t seen much like what I got in high school, including the fact that even some of the teachers were in on it.
(And yes, teachers were in on some of this stuff throughout school. In one memorable instance a teacher who frequently found new and creative ways to humiliate me so the other kids would laugh, actually wrote home to my parents about my great “sense of humor” — which seemed to actually mean, that he enjoyed laughing and getting others to laugh at my expense. Others, like a particular gym teacher, were more into physical rather than emotional violence. Some teachers were okay, but some of them seemed outright sadistic. A shocking number of autistic people I know, me included, have had teachers or other authority figures ask everyone in the room to tell us everything they hate about us.)
I wrote in a previous post about some of the long-term effects of things like this, and I noted the following:
I’m not telling this story to make you feel bad for me as a person. I’m telling it because assorted variants on these experiences are so close to universal among the autistic people I’ve known. How can you get a good idea of the social abilities or emotional range of a set of people who are treated like this from the moment we encounter other children, sometimes from the moment we encounter other people at all?
I still want to know this.
I also want to know what on earth it means that it’s considered “good social skills” to learn to be one of the people that excludes. And autistic and non-autistic people alike can eventually learn to be that, even if we weren’t much like that to begin with. I’m not trying to say we can’t, I’m not going to pretend not to notice what happens to autistic people who gain the power to become exclusive. But it’s sheer ugliness that these horrible things are treated as normal, and being the target of them makes you seen as somehow worse than the people doing the targeting. And the people doing the targeting are seen as the ones to emulate, it seems like.
It was also an ugly truth to realize that while some people grow out of it, many people who begin as bullies grow up to remain bullies. I fully realized that when a parent of an autistic kid called my friend a “retard” when he was mad at her, then later went on to say that he always tells his son to quit acting like a “retard”. I imagine that if he’d gone to school with me or my friend he’d have done worse than name-calling. (This is also reason #4285 why I don’t believe that “special children are given to special parents” nonsense.) It wasn’t the first time I’d seen an adult be hateful by any means, but it was the first time I connected the adults to the children in my head.
Daniel Mont wrote a book, A Different Kind of Boy. It was about his autistic son Alex. Daniel wanted to put Alex in a gifted program, because Alex was ahead in many areas and he read literature suggesting that Alex’s social and perceptual differences might actually be partly the consequence of intellectual differences. There’s an entire chapter on it that everyone should read. Alex took an IQ test and met all the requirements for the program. Then he went to one meeting of it. The other children, who were regarded as perfect and exquisitely sensitive, decided, apparently, that they didn’t want Alex around. The parents backed them up completely:
“You mean, you’re not letting Alex join?” I was incredulous. “He passed your IQ test.”
“Yes, but the other children feel he really isn’t one of them. Do you konw what I mean? I’m sure there are other programs he can sign up for. We’re sorry, we feel bad because you and Nanette were so nice.”
“Well, what did he do?” I fought to restrain my anger.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mont. Our decision is final. We really have to trust our children on this.”
I hung up the phone. I was furious. Absolutely furious. What kind of monsters were these people raising, anyway? “They are not like us. We can tell if he belongs.”
And at that point he realized the elitism that runs through most such programs (all that I’ve seen anyway, and not just intellectual elitism either — the gifted programs I was a part of were mostly populated by middle-class or wealthy white kids, most of whom wouldn’t have been put there were we anything else), and the disturbing nature of the assumption that the children were the ones best able to make the decisions in this matter.
I have read in the past about schools in some places — most American schools are not like this — where children work together to solve problems, and where the kids who learn faster in any particular area, instead of being separated out and told they’re special and above everyone else, end up being taught to use their talents to cooperate with the other children. “Winning” or “getting ahead” isn’t the goal there — and all the children tend to learn more than they do in the more cut-throat style of schools. If schools have to exist that sounds like a much better set of principles to run them on.
As I mentioned in my other post — my brother was, as he describes it, the “town scapegoat” in the small town I was born in. People sometimes think he’s exaggerating to say that everyone hated him there, just like they sometimes say my friend Joel and I exaggerate when we say teachers joined in with some of the other kids’ bullying towards us. From what our parents say, if he’s exaggerating it’s not by much.
Oddizm claims that autistic people are “eminently hate-able”.
I don’t think we are. But I think that we are, like many other disabled people, subject to widespread hate. And that the hate often wears a lot of other masks — but is, basically, hate, in all its guises.
And hate in some of its most raw guises is what autistic people encounter in kindergarten.
If schools are going to exist and teachers are going to teach in them (and I’m not a big fan of schools, but I know to say they’re widespread is an understatement), they ought to discourage hate and exclusion. As should parents.
They ought not to join in.
And they sure as hell ought not to outright invite it and celebrate it the way this teacher has.
If this were the way things were done, then anyone who was the wrong kind of “different” of the day — autistic or non-autistic — would be voted out of every kindergarten where prejudice against people like us existed. I would’ve been “voted out” in preschool, and the kids were doing their darnedest to try even without a teacher’s encouragement.
Children aren’t born knowing how to behave towards other children. None of them are, autistic or non-autistic. They have to learn that everyone’s dependent on everyone else, that people aren’t better than others just by being better at something, and that tendencies to do bad things to other people are things we all have to fight, not give in to, if we want society to be remotely just to anyone.
And this teacher is leading these kids in the wrong direction to learn any of those lessons.