on education, and falling through the cracks


(taking a break from your previously-scheduled MS content to be teachery for a moment.)

I teach at a downtown community college. We get quite the range of students: returning to school, a large international population, students just coming back from drug addiction and/or homelessness, high school students earning college credit… and often in the same classroom.

The past few quarters, in my non-majors classes, I’ve seen an upswing of students with autism spectrum disorder. Unbeknownst to me prior to this, Washington state has a program which allows autistic students (and students who need help with basic life skills) to work toward a degree. As someone who is a scientist and not a social worker, it’s challenging to integrate these students, especially if they’re farther from “normal” on the autism spectrum.

Last fall quarter, I had an especially challenging situation, which was short-lived. (And I wonder about the consequences…) First week of the quarter, in one of my classes that was especially discussion-based, I had a student who made some frightening comments. (I guessed he was autistic, and later found out he was.) His comments were regarding violence to himself and to others, multiple times, in group discussion. Some of my students looked nervous. I was petrified, as well… but kept my cool. (The guy was small and didn’t appear capable of gun violence… but you never know, right?)

I reported the situation to our counseling department. To make a long story short, they didn’t handle it well–just tried talking it out with him, which made him more mad, especially at me, for having reported him. (Which made me more nervous. But no violence occurred. Despite his tweeting about school shootings. Yes. Oy.)

So, I had to have Security come and remove him from my classroom…

I felt a lot safer, though he was still on campus taking other classes. Which made me wonder: is there a point when he’s going to improve? He was in my colleagues’ classes, but with less group discussion, it all worked out for all involved parties.

But shortly after that, I also wondered: is he representative of the ultra-creative types? The Charlie Parkers, the Kurt Cobains–the ones that just never got understood, and were just a little “out there”, personality-wise? I hoped that my actions–removing this kid from my class–didn’t quench any of his creative juices… assuming any were there.

After that situation, I looked at all of the students in my class in a new light. Yes, this one who acted out was extreme. But there were (and are!) the others who are sullen and difficult to draw out. Are they just a milder version of this same guy?

Are we all a little bit autistic, in our own way? Food for thought. Understanding, rather than labeling and fingerpointing…

But coming up with a better solution than mainstreaming the extremes.


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