When my son started preschool last year, we thought we were just dealing with a stereotypically “difficult child.” He threw tantrums when things didn’t go as he wanted or expected. He was disruptive during circle time. He needed frequent redirection from his teacher. We knew he was bright and had already learned outside of school what he was now being taught in the classroom, so we chalked it up to boredom.
As time went on, we started noticing other things. His emotions were becoming increasingly difficult to regulate, and something small could make him cry on and off for long periods of time. He made repetitive noises and didn’t seem to be in complete control of starting or stopping them. He wasn’t making friends.
Just a couple weeks ago, he received a diagnosis of level 1 autism spectrum disorder. This is similar to what is known as Asperger’s syndrome. My son is academically advanced but has deficits when it comes to social and emotional skills. He has a hard time controlling his feelings and impulses. If you’ve ever had a preschooler, you’re probably aware that emotional and impulse control are already not exactly top in their skill set.
I knew very little about autism when testing began. When the diagnosis was made, I set out to learn as much as possible. I read everything I could to find out how to help my son navigate the world around him. Frustratingly, I learned that getting what he needed to function in a public school setting would be exceedingly difficult, especially in our underfunded district. I studied articles and forums, trying to find support and a gain some clarity about the path ahead of us.
What I wasn’t expecting was some of the pushback I saw online, in comment sections, and even highlighted in social media posts. I saw angry parents who saw children like mine in their child’s school and felt cheated. They saw children who didn’t think or behave like their children did, and after blaming whatever behaviors they deemed unacceptable on poor parenting, they raged about resources that could have been used for their child being given to someone else’s.
They complained about large class sizes, and how instead of having an individual educator to sit with a child with special needs, the class should be split in half so everyone could benefit from another teacher in the room. Never mind that this special needs child can’t focus without assistance, or forget that he needs constant redirection that would take a sizable chunk out of any teacher’s instruction time, no matter how small their class size.
And who cares that their neurotypical child is actually benefiting from having someone who isn’t exactly like them as part of their daily life and just maybe as a result they won’t grow up to be such an insufferable, selfish asshole. The school system was already designed for their child who plays an important role in modeling appropriate peer and social relationships for someone like my child. When simple interactions feel like a complicated dance with your shoes on the wrong feet, being in an inclusive classroom and observing how others manage is invaluable.
That quote about how when you’re used to benefitting from inequality, equality feels like oppression? I wanted to tattoo it on the insides of these parents’ eyelids and give them a reason to lie awake at night thinking of someone besides themselves.
And when I thought I had seen it all, this one hit me like a brick, square in the chest.
“They should be with their kind in their own class.”
This was a parent who was, I will admit, rightfully upset about an episode in his son’s classroom, when a classmate with special needs became very upset and began throwing chairs, frightening this man’s son. This father felt that his son has a right to learn at school without disruption.
And that’s where he’s wrong.
His son has a right to a free and equal education, just as any other child. And a free and equal education is not achieved through separating your child from mine. A free and equal education is not equal if it comes at the detriment of others.
Your child does not deserve to spend their school day sheltered from children who don’t think and act like they do. Your child does not deserve to never have to consider that maybe not everyone starts with the same advantages. Your child does not deserve another leg up to further the gap.
You do not have a right to segregate my child.
Before you agonize over the ways you perceive your child to be getting the shaft, think about what you would want if your child needed special education services. Consider for a moment the fact that you will be spending the 12 years your child is in public school waking them up in the mornings and nagging them about their homework at night, with that being the general extent to which they truly need you for this part of their lives.
Consider the fact that many children with special needs end up getting left behind in the public school system. Those who get the services they need just to have a shot at receiving the level of education your child automatically does in an underfunded district like ours have usually only managed their win by employing expensive advocates and lawyers and countless man-hours.
If you really believe that your child is suffering because of the presence of special needs children in their school, stop complaining. Get involved in your community and advocate for better-funded schools. Instead of giving your privileged child a jump by denying other children what they need just to function in a classroom, recognize that society benefits as a whole when all of its members are educated fairly and equally. Advocate for your child without propagating discrimination for mine, and others like him.