I walked into that small classroom, stopping at the door to glance around. There were 10 children and their aides in there. The school day had already started. The district had called me last minute when the aide assigned to one of the children had called in sick.
There were six aides in the classroom. One of the special needs aides had announced upon arriving that she had a headache and was already 30 minutes into a nap.
If there was a teacher in the classroom, I could not immediately distinguish her from the rest of the aides. I looked for nicer shoes and an air of extra confidence. Then I looked for the white woman in the group.
“The teacher just stepped out to make copies,” said a male aide, “Can I help you?”
“I’m with David today,” I said.
“That’s him over there,” said the aide.
He pointed to a scrawny kid with dark hair and lean face.
“He can talk. But he’s mainly non-verbal,” said the aide, “He’s a cool kid. He likes to run out to the bathroom, so keep an eye on him. Don’t let him out of the classroom. It’s hard to get him back in.”
I taught elementary school in the 1990’s when I was in my early twenties. By the time I was in my late twenties, the disappointments of working in a system that cares more about the teachers and the money than the children broke me. But I wasn’t ready to stop working to create lasting change in children’s lives.
I applied for and got a position at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Program, Evaluation and Research Branch collecting data from classrooms for the researchers at LAUSD to analyze. In this new position, I observed classrooms for six hours at a time, took copious notes, and made a supported decision about whether or not the classroom was teaching English Language Acquisition. In 2005, when work slowed in our department, I decided to help a fellow co-worker on the Modified Consent Decree at the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The Modified Consent Decree came out of a legal decision to monitor Special Education services in the district. In 1993, Chanda Smith’s parents sued LAUSD for not meeting the needs of their child. The Chanda Smith plaintiffs wanted LAUSD to comply with federal law that says all children deserve an equal educational opportunity. In 1996, Chanda Smith’s counsel and LAUSD drew up the Consent Decree: a list of recommendations to help LAUSD to comply with federal standards. Eventually, quantifiable measures were added, leading to the Modified Consent Decree. This was a list of standards the district had to meet with special needs students to be in compliance. Our team was there to monitor the progress.
At the time I was hired for this position, my son was 10 years old. He had non-specific undiagnosed special needs. I’d had him tested at various places. I was a single mom, working two jobs, and barely had money to get through the week. But I had him tested, paying out of pocket. I was desperate. I felt frustrated and disempowered and angry. With this project, at least I could ensure that some special needs kids were getting services.
The Modified Consent Decree covered all special needs services. We didn’t have the capacity to look at each service to evaluate its quality. We decided to find out whether the services were actually taking place according to each child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). As the name implies, each IEP is specific to each child’s needs. The IEP acts as a legal document that the school has to comply with.
In 2005, I was in the classroom to see if the district was providing the interventions they’d agreed to provide. Until 1975, many schools were not even teaching special education children on the same campus as mainstream (“regular”) students. Every child is different, but the United States promises that all children have the right to a free public education. In other words, all children in the community have an equal access to schooling no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, social economic status, sexual orientation or documentation. This applies to special needs kids as much as it does to all other children.
I found myself in a project where I was watching while students received their services, whatever they might be.
In research, watching is what you primarily do when you collect data. You don’t intervene. You don’t comment. You don’t talk. You don’t advise. You watch. Eventually, watching depressed me. I needed action. I needed to be able to create change.
I decided to take a position as a special needs aide in my spare time. I thought it would fill the void and helplessness I felt while observing. I applied to another district and received a position.
To the untrained eye, the classroom I walked into looked like any other elementary class. Except this classroom was filled to capacity with special needs children. It’s what they call in California a “self-contained classroom.” It’s a plonking ground for all special needs children who can’t be part of a regular education classroom. They are all put in the same classroom despite age and diagnosis.
When you put a special education kid in regular classrooms it’s called “mainstreaming” or “inclusion.” These labels always bother me. It’s as if there really is a main tributary where we are trying to “include” everyone who isn’t like the dominant population. It’s like watching schools trying to turn all cats into grey tabbies.
It’s a ridiculous situation. The principal decides the school’s vision. The staff follow. What happens between the construction and delivery of that message, and how the staff views it and enacts it is a whole different situation. In the meantime, the principal wants grey tabbies and the teachers try frantically to paint stripes on all the children in order to meet the standards.
Except that special needs children, despite their diagnoses, defy labels.
I hadn’t been trained but my 11-year-old son has autism like David, and I wasn’t intimidated. In fact, I was angry about the conditions in the classroom. On first glance, I could tell the materials and assignments weren’t right for the kids.
Most people assume that all children should be learning the same thing in an American classroom. But math and phonemes aren’t always the solution to our special needs children. Often, they are desperately in need of social skills. They don’t know how to identify or label the things they feel. They need help with this more than they need to understand what letter CAT begins with.
The art assignment the classroom teacher had designed for them wasn’t working. The children ate paste in globs while the aides tried to get through this. The children struggled to sit in chairs and focus on the given assignment. They didn’t have the motor skills to work scissors and struggled to cut. They struggled with spreading the paste.
And I struggled to understand the inanity of the assignment. Who was winning here?
David eyed the exit. I could see by the way he rocked slightly that he was up to mischief. I blocked his exit with my body so he couldn’t escape to the bathroom. I distracted him with a marble game.
Many children with autism love to build. David loved building a maze that he ran marbles through, a series of loops and trails. The marble always ended up in the same place, but it didn’t matter to David. He loved the motion.
Eventually, I missed the open door. But David didn’t. He ran down the small hall and into the bathroom. He squealed as he laughed. Once in the bathroom, he ran and got himself into a stall. Thinking that he needed to use the bathroom, I initially waited patiently. Till the flushing started. Once, then twice, then again.
“David, are you okay? Do you need help?” I said.
David flushed again. He screamed in happiness.
I walked into the stall. He was having the best time of his life. He was flushing and running away from the bathroom. His body was curled inward as he covered his ears and shrieked with glee.
His joy was amazing.
I pulled him back into the classroom. He was resistant but he came along. I was sorry I dragged him back. Like him, I could see that the bathroom was more fun than the art activity.
The rest of the time, David would ask “Tiger says?” and respond to himself “Meow.” He thought this was hilarious. The fact is, I did too. I wondered how he had arrived at such a funny narrative. Had he made up the joke himself?
You don’t put children in a self-contained classroom unless you have to. In a public school, it’s the most restrictive place you can put a child, doubly so if they also have an adult monitoring them at all times. Someone had decided David couldn’t survive in a regular class and had placed him in a classroom with children who ate paste. Meanwhile, I wondered at his brilliance. In the right setting, he could be a comedian. In the right setting, he might be able to able to thrive and have friends.
The warmth and authenticity of special needs kids is an amazing thing. In 2017, during a workshop at the Regional Center, a resource center for special needs children in California, a presenting social worker said to us, “I am better than Brendan at math or at tying my shoes. I’m good at these skills. But I can see that he is a better human than I am. He’s honest. He’s more human that I can ever hope to be. In this aspect, he’s better than me. But this humanity isn’t what they are measured for. We don’t have an assessment for this.”
You can’t compare one human to another. When it comes to autism, we just don’t understand enough to even begin such a comparison. We can’t even compare one autistic person to another. People always ask, “Is your child high-functioning?” That doesn’t mean anything. Functioning how or where?
The Regional Center measures each child’s intellect, but they also measure the child’s capacity to discern when they are unsafe, to cook for themselves, and make general decisions about their well-being. They want to know if the child will eventually be able to live alone and take care of themselves.
But how does an adult with special needs navigate a world that has already decided they are not enough? How did David go to school everyday understanding that he was going to be measured by his failures again and again? By placing him in a room with all the other misfits, his brilliance was muted. He was lumped into the unusual and therefore, dismissed.
The system fails them and yet they still have to figure out how to live, how to get by, how to thrive.
My son is 23 years old now. He went to school every day with dread, understanding that he would be told in great detail everything he was doing wrong. The school he attended in elementary grades didn’t even like how he held his pencil. When he was initially diagnosed, they told me he would never be able to read.
He reads. He’s figuring out how to take care of himself and is in love with a woman he’s been with for over four years. He’s training to record and engineer sound for movies and television. He’s accomplished things I never thought he would, not because he and I didn’t work hard, but because the schools told us both to accept his limitations.
For many years, the fact that he lived in his own mind, in the safety of his own head, was understood by schools to be stupidity. But he was blatantly aware of what the schools thought. He wasn’t making eye contact, but he knew he was different and undervalued. He knew the schools had written him off. And you know what? He’d written them off, too. By the time Nathan was 10 years old, he had already decided that schools weren’t worth his time.
I’m very proud of Nathan. Like David, Nathan has a great sense of humor. We’ve attended social skills programs that have tried to teach Nathan not to be funny, not to tell jokes. At that time, programs were afraid that kids would make themselves targets if they tried to be humorous. But Nathan never conformed. He was sure of who he was. In 2017, he put together a film where he stars as the main character who is called to be a superhero.
I sat with the audience and watched him on the big screen. My eyes widened with wonder at the complexity of his story, and I wondered how he had managed to put it together during a time when he’d been suffering a horrible mental break.
In his movie, he stumbles around, trying to be a hero, bumping into things, misunderstanding, and falling apart, even as he’s called to save the world. His movie was unexpected in its storyline and humor.
It’s true that sometimes we are called to be heroes. This goes for all of us. The call for heroes isn’t stingy or discriminatory. The call is there for anyone who cares to answer it. Sometimes that hero roars its response. It is loud and dominating and makes everyone tremble with the fear of its power. But sometimes that hero, that tiger, says meow.
Mireya S. Vela is a creative non-fiction writer and researcher in Los Angeles. In her work, Ms. Vela addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the (ongoing) injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse. Ms. Vela received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Whitter College—and received her Master of Fine Arts from Antioch University in 2018. She is also a visual artist.