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Why NYC Schools Aren’t Equipped to Handle Kids with Autism

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I’m not even going to mince words here. I don’t think the New York City Public School System is equipped to handle kids with autism.

Two weeks ago, 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo ran out of his Queens school and has been missing since. Avonte is autistic and non-verbal. His school is a District 75 school and shares a space with a “typical” school. On the day that Avonte walked out, a security guard asked Avonte where he was going. When he didn’t answer (because he’s non-verbal), the guard let Avonte go, assuming he was “one of the regular kids.”

Autism is an invisible disability, and it’s easy for many autistic kids to pass for “regular.” But when there is a population of kids with autism in the same building as “typical” kids, officials should be trained and prepared to act accordingly. Everyone in the building needs to understand what autism is and what it “looks” like. If the Department of Education is not prepared to do that, then maybe they should start creating public schools exclusively for kids with autism and/or special needs.

The school was also aware that Avonte was a runner and in need of “constant supervision.” There is surveillance video of Avonte walking through the school alone and running out of the building. It was also reported that the school waited an hour before notifying Avonte’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, that her son was missing. When Dennis Walcott (Education Chancellor) was asked about how this could happen, his answer was evasive and police commissioner Raymond Kelly doesn’t believe the security guard did anything wrong.

This should have never happened. Avonte should’ve never been left unattended, and he shouldn’t have been able to leave the school. The public school system failed Avonte, and it needs to be held accountable.

Parents of autistic kids send their children to school every day, and rely on teachers and staff to care for their children and keep them safe.  Many autistic kids have difficulty discussing their day-to-day, so parents hope teachers will fill in the blanks. When a child with autism goes missing, it reminds us how vulnerable and fragile our children are. Avonte was able to walk out of a public school. How can we expect to send our kids to school and feel secure that they’ll return home?

I was born and raised in New York City, and attended public school most of my life. I believe that a school — public or private — is what you make of it. And I believe that there are many public school teachers who will teach lessons that will stay with kids long after they leave the classroom.

But when it comes to kids with autism, I don’t believe that the New York City Department of Education is prepared for the increase of kids diagnosed with autism. The DOE is supposed to be structured to provide an appropriate education. However, parents, educators, and administrators often disagree on what is and isn’t appropriate.

Back in 2011, when Norrin entered the public school system as a kindergartener, he was placed in a special program for kids with autism. The class consisted of six students, one teacher, and two assistants and was located in a “regular” school. On paper, the program sounded amazing. But on  the first day, I knew it was a mistake. No one at that school — not even Norrin’s special education teacher or therapists — understood autism.

One of the biggest issues for me was that the school did nothing to educate their teachers and parents or other students about autism. When autistic kids were admitted, the school didn’t modify its programs or procedures. And when I made suggestions regarding what they could do for Norrin, the school cut off communication with me. They allowed this small population of kids with autism into a “typical” school, and it was sink or swim. Norrin drowned. He failed kindergarten. At the end of the school year, I had to sue the DOE in order to have him placed in another school.

Based on the current structure of the New York City Department of Education, I don’t believe that inclusion is the way to go unless significant changes are made.

I asked a few other parents to share their thoughts regarding kids with autism and New York City Public Schools. Here’s what they had to say:

Marisol: My son has never been to public school, so personally I can’t comment on that. But from listening to other parents, I believe NYC public schools are not equipped with the right personnel to handle the myriad of issues that our kids can have. We need public schools dedicated exclusively to our children. I hate the whole segregated issue, but our kids deserve better.

Jenise: My son is an “aspie” and there are only two programs (Nest and Horizon) for high-functioning kids with autism within public schools. There are 1,700 NYC public schools, and only 24 with Nest (6 ASD kids per class), and about 12 with Horizon (also 6 kids). The process for a spot is ridiculous.

Kyona: I think these schools have been formed but not completely thought out, and they are not prepared for any possible incident. They base the curriculum and rules around General Education standards.

Kpana: I heard Walcott speaking about co-locating more schools on NY1 this morning (code for cramming three schools into one building). I am in favor of segregating our kids if that is what they need until the DOE can create appropriate and safe schools for them. My son is in a non-public school. That is only because I rejected the public school they tried to shove him in. It was in a school that had three schools in one (charter, middle school and D75). Guess where the D75 kids were? On the lowest level with barely any ventilation. The school had metal detectors. I later learned it had a history of bullying. Not knocking all public schools, but the DOE needs to do better.

I know there are some wonderful and caring special education teachers and staff within the New York Department of Education. However, due to constant budget cuts to special education, teachers are expected to do more — and with much less. Teachers aren’t encouraged to advocate for kids who may need more services and/or a different learning environment. Kids with autism are just numbers and part of a budget, and their education and services are often dictated by what’s best for the bottom line.

Do you have a child with autism in the New York City Public School System? What are your thoughts?

For more information regarding Avonte Oquendo please visit the Facebook Page – Bring Avonte Home

Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.

And don’t miss a post! Follow Lisa on Twitter and Facebook!

image via iStock.com 

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