After 1990, the number of young people with autism diagnoses educated in public schools in the United States rose rapidly; the legal mandates of IDEA ensured that still others were educated in private institutions paid for with public funds. Overall, then, access to educational institutions has improved dramatically for autistic children within recent decades. It is doubtful, though, whether many of these children have reached their full educational potential. Despite greatly improved access to schools, huge challenges continue to face autistic children seeking an education. Few teachers are adequately trained to meet their learning needs, and indeed, those needs are still poorly understood even by “experts.” The educational environment remains hostile, from both a sensory and a social perspective. School buildings and classrooms are full of often unnecessary sensory stressors and distractions, not to mention intimidating bullies. Moreover, autistic students continue to be disproportionately subject to severe and even life-threatening discipline, often for fairly minor infractions of the rules. These challenges will be the subject of the next few posts on this blog.
The most serious problem by far facing autistic students in American schools, however, is the presumption of stupidity, which leads to appallingly low academic expectations. In one recent research project, only 56% of the autistic students studied had any academic skills at all listed in their IEP goals. Their teachers simply did not expect them to reach grade-level academic content standards. This is because far too many teachers continue to associate autism with intellectual disability, even though, as we have already seen, current scientific research indicates that autistic people have the same range of intellectual abilities as everyone else. The ability to speak (expressive language), depending as it does on physical capabilities, is certainly not a good indicator of intelligence. Nevertheless, far too many (indeed, most) schools continue to assign empty labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” to their autistic students, based on speaking ability and extremely problematic I.Q. testing. Those labelled “low-functioning” are generally considered intellectually disabled. They tend to be be shunted off into special education classrooms, which provide some life-skill and social-skill training, but often almost nothing in the way of academics.
One such individual, Michael Weinstein, describes his school experience in this way:
The school officials tested me and said I had an IQ of less than 70 and would never get a high school diploma, so I spent a lot of time learning how to wipe off cafeteria tables, sort utensils, and make little arts and crafts projects. Although I understood everything that was said to me, I could not indicate in any way, verbally or non-verbally, that I understood them.
Eventually Mr. Weinstein learned to type, enabling him to demonstrate his genius-level I.Q. and his exceptional skills in mathematics. Similarly, Philip Reyes reports that his teachers “were well meaning but believed I could not understand much of anything because I could not talk or write to communicate that I was smart and understood everything going on around me.” Instead, Philip says, he was trained like an animal in school, “as everyone tried to make me act normally with candy rewards.”
There is no inherent reason why special education classrooms cannot be intellectually challenging, but in practice they seldom are. Bright young people may spend years in these classes hearing basic arithmetic facts or the names of colors repeated over and over again, but learning nothing that might later help them as either workers or citizens. Ido Kedar, another non-speaking autistic, fiercely criticizes the thinking behind these practices: “The assumption that people with severe autism all have impaired thinking has resulted in the underestimating of the true abilities of thousands of individuals, lack of adequate educational opportunities, isolation, loneliness, boredom, frustration, hopelessness, and a life of entrapment within one’s own body. This price is too high.”
 Sara Witmer, and Summer Ferreri, “Alignment of Instruction, Expectations and Accountability Testing for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 29: 3 (2014), 136-38.
 Michael Weinstein, “Life with Autism” on the Golden Hat Foundation blog: http://www.goldenhatfoundation.org/about-us/blog/125-golden-hat-foundation-blog-70211
 “Communication Device Opens Up the World to Nonverbal Autistic Boy, Buffalo Evening News 12/3/15: http://buffalonews.com/2015/12/02/communication-device-opens-up-the-world-to-nonverbal-autistic-boy/.