Susan's Blog

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Getting Kids the Supports They Need

This is my column from today’s Brookline Tab. I also have a letter in today’s Boston Globe. I am all over this thing because I am so afraid of what people will now think about disabled students, and sure enough, the Globe also has a letter from a parent advocating they get any special ed kid with a history of aggressive behavior out of the schools.

Do we offer our kids the support they need?

We don’t want to have to learn from tragedy, but that is often the way it works in this life. Sometimes gleaning a lesson even from a tragic, senseless incident like the killing of a teen at Lincoln-Sudbury provides us with a moment to reflect on how things are in our own families, or our own town.

The question that came to my mind when I heard this horrible news story was, could this have been prevented? And then I thought, what will be the fallout from such a tragedy? Will people blame autism programs? Will they stigmatize autistic people, and their families? What does this tragedy mean for Brookline schools?

Like everyone else, I want to be reassured that this kind of horror can be prevented. I know there are no guarantees, but as a parent of a child in the high school, and as the parent of another child with severe autism, I want to know that there are enough supports and the right therapeutic infrastructure to truly protect our children.

What I don’t want to see, in Lincoln-Sudbury or anywhere else, are suggestions that we exclude the more complicated students — farm them out to private programs or “screen” them out, as one Boston newspaper editorial suggested on Monday. I understand firsthand the difficulties that autism spectrum disorder can bring, and I know that great vigilance is required on the part of the family and the school. These children are complicated and challenging, but they are not monsters. They need the right kind of care and attention. And yet there is no way that a school or a family can plan for every terrible possibility. How then does a school system get it right for all of its kids?

All school communities should be trying to understand what they can do better in their schools to nurture and protect children. Here in Brookline, we should ask ourselves if we are doing enough in terms of the social/emotional well-being of our kids, or are we too focused on high academic achievement? Several years ago, to my greatest disappointment, while I was on the Brookline School Committee, we voted to cut eight social workers from our elementary schools. We have never fully restored that program. Our Understanding Disabilities program is decades old, and does not even include the so-called “newer” and more prevalent disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder and other neurological issues. Yet Understanding Disabilities — which is taught only once in our children’s school career, a four-week period in third or fourth grade — is one of our only townwide attempts to promote compassion and tolerance of difference through curriculum. Many of our schools individually offer excellent social skill opportunities, but there is no universal social skill-building program in the Learning Expectations.

Yes, support programs cost money, and yes, monitoring students’ states of mind is a complicated proposition, especially in the upper grades. Often by the high school level, we see the opposite: a more hands-off, teach-them-to-be-independent attitude. The bottom line is that while it may be a high school’s goal to get every child to advocate for himself and take responsibility for his own needs, there are children who are not ready. They need greater support and care. More than emphasizing what we would like to be, however, we should be focusing on what is needed now. It should be our highest priority to make sure that every student is safe: physically, socially and emotionally.

The world our children were born into is more complicated than the one in which we grew up. With Columbine, and now Lincoln-Sudbury darkening our experience of public school, we have to be brave enough to look at how we do things and make changes if necessary. We all desire to keep something like this from happening again, and to understand what we can improve in our schools. But that begins with being sure that we do everything possible to reaffirm our commitment to a diverse student body. Diversity is not only about one’s ethnic origins, but can also be about learning style.

We have so much that is wonderful already in Brookline schools. By strengthening and updating our social/emotional support systems, we may not only help prevent further tragedies; we will be growing a sturdier, healthier crop of kids able to take on anything this world demands of them.

Susan Senator is a writer living in Brookline. Her Web site is


There are apparently around 40 school-related homicides in any given year in the US (source). That means that an ASD kid should be expected to commit a homicide in school every 4.15 years, all else being equal.

This is the first time I’ve heard of such an occurrence (which is remarkable considering how much ASD kids are bullied). In other words, I don’t see any evidence that ASD kids are more dangerous than NT kids, so why the special focus?

— added by Joseph on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 10:13 am

Susan, If we cured the kids, we wouldn’t need any social programs. Are you ready to convert from the dark side?

— added by Foresam on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 11:14 am

I agree with you 100% Susan. Also, I think parents say things as a knee-jerk reaction, out of fear, to terrible events that take place, and then other parents feed on that fearful hysteria. Both are very damaging. It’s a fear of the unknown. If we get rid of any special needs kid that is aggressive, then should we get rid of all kids that have a history of aggression? Then do we get rid of kids who wear long black trench coats and carry a duffle bag to school? Were the Columbine kids ASD? I doubt it. Were the Columbine kids aggressive? Don’t know. But “getting rid of” kids because of this or that is no guarantee either. You have to take each child into account individually, and try to help them and understand them, not get rid of them. I know, I know, we don’t have the time, right?

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 1:02 pm

I would hope that schools would focus on teaching social skills to the majority non-autistic kids as well as the autistic ones. I can’t tell from your article if that’s what you are proposing, but you may be. All the pressue to deal with bullying without resorting to violence shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of the ASD kids.

When an ASD kid is bullied, as they are almost universally, and sometimes with equisitely designed tortures coming not only from peers but from teachers… a death may result *in some cases*, it’s usually the death of the ASD kid by suicide or murder.

Then all the bullies can sit back and laugh and pretty much no one writes letters to editors complaining about how awful NT kids are and how bullies should be screened from schools and kept separate, which to my mind is a great idea.

Would there be all this attention in your area if the ASD young man had killed himself?

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 1:04 pm

I am advocating a social skills curriculum, which means ALL kids learn it, akin to the Understanding Disabilities program we have, but one that would be updated to include ASD.

And sadly, no, I don’t think that this would have gotten as much attention if the boy had committed suicide.

I absolutely agree 100% that bullying is predominantly perpetrated by the NT world, rather than those on the spectrum, and that this needs to be addressed.

— added by Susan Senator on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 1:16 pm

Mark Z,

Joseph: it is getting the special focus because autism is so much in the news these days.

Fore Sam: I was talking about social skills curricula for ALL kids. Even if a child has no visible issues, he could benefit from learning tolerance, acceptance, and could grow from what different kids could teach HIM.

— added by Susan Senator on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 1:19 pm

I think it is innate in human nature that we try to separate ourselves from perceived danger. Thus when a hurricane kills people, we tell ourselves that it won’t happen to us because we don’t live in a hurricane prone area. When someone is assaulted walking home late at night, we tell ourselves it won’t happen to us because we won’t do that.

We watch out for strangers at the playground, move out of the inner city, move into gated communities, and drive the biggest SUV we can find, in order to separate ourselves from all that is “different”. All in the elusive pursuit of “perfect safety”.

Unless we are all vigilant and proactive in talking out against unfound prejudices, those prejudices spread like fire on a dry prairie.

Thanks, Susan, for responding in such a rapid, rational, and reasoned manner.

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 5:22 pm

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