Thursday, April 5, 2007

John Stossel, Kids with AS, Middle School and the "S" Word

I am sure that I have mentioned that N. has AS, which is Aspergers Syndrome.

AS is an Autism Spectrum Disorder that involves difficulties with social interaction, non-verbal and verbal communication, and stereotyped obsessive behaviors. This sounds formidable, and it can be, but "Aspies" often look "normal" to others, although they seem to act just a little bit "different."

ABC Nightline and ABC News has been doing a series called Echoes of Autism about AS. Last night, Nightline ran a ten minute segment about the difficulties that students with AS have when they reach adolescence and middle school.

Middle school. John Stossel called middle school "the scorched earth zone of American childhood." A psychologist interviews on the Nightline program said several studies show that up to 90% of middle school students with AS are bullied every day. Every day!

I knew this statistic. And we had already had problems with bullying in N.'s elementary school experience. There were times of intense bullying interspersed with relatively calm times throughout for him. Sometimes it seemed to us as though all of our energy was going to keeping N. functioning in school and that there was none left over for actual learning. In the beginning of 4th grade, for example, N. spent most of his day under the table.

The statistics. Warnings from other parents that you cannot work and have a child with disabilities in middle school. Our previous school experiences. All of this, as well as academic concerns, and concerns about too much testing, factored into our decision to take N. out of school and begin homeschooling. N. has made great progress and never looked back.

When I watched the Nightline segment, I was mentally congratulating myself on the wise decision we had made not to send N. to middle school.

And then John Stossel said that sentence. The one I wrote above. The one I will repeat again, in case you missed it. It is easy to miss, I think, because it fits the picture of reality most Americans have. He said:

Middle school is the "scorched earth zone of American childhood."

Think about that statement. It was said very matter-of-factly. And yet it is both profoundly sad and full of despair. John Stossel was saying that American middle schools are terribly unfriendly, stressful places and that this is "normal." It is what we can expect of our children at a certain age. Adolescents are naturally cruel to each other and nothing can be done about that.The only problem is how to help children who are different, children who have disabilities adjust to it.

Since we have taken N. out of school, I have had the opportunity to watch homeschooled kids interact in a variety of settings. At the grocery store. At the library. At "park day." At museum science classes. In all of these settings, the kids are interacting in multi-age groups with minimal adult supervision. And they are not cruel to each other. They gently tease sometimes, but they explain the jokes to those who don't get it right away. They seem to think independently and do not have that group "herding instinct" that teachers so often laugh about when discussing adolescents.

And it is not only homeschooled kids who are this way. We have been going to the skateboard park, N's newest "special interest," lately. (Very good to large motor coordination and proprioreception). There, kids from about mid-elementary age to high-school come to practice their 'boarding." They teach each other new "moves," discuss the fine points of velocity and balance, organize themselves so that there are no collisions--and there really are no collisions--and help each other out. There are no adults in the Skatepark. N-O-N-E. Adults are elsewhere in the park, or gossiping happily on the picnic benches, but no adults are supervising the skaters. And the kids are civil with each other, and more, they are friendly and engaged in something of interest to all of them. They want it to work out so they can become better 'boarders.

From all of these observations, I have concluded that they way kids treat each other in middle school is not "normal" for them. It is abnormal. They are as nervous and jumpy as lab rats raised in an impoverished environment. It is not "normal" for social mammals to be isolated from their community and raised in an age-segregated environment. Animal behaviorists know that this is a recipe for making an animal "mean to the bone," as the little guy with AS said when he described his bully to John Stossel.

So why do we accept the antisocial behavior of middle school students as "normal?" Why are older people often afraid of adolescent energy?

My hypothesis is that the problem lies not with the kids, but with the environment in which we force them to live and grow and learn. The environment is age-segregated,intellectually unstimulating, encourages competition for teacher time and attention, crowded, noisy, and has only poor nutrition available. It is definitely not the optimal environment for young mammals out to learn how to be social in their culture.

It is so interesting that the first objection I am met with when I tell someone that I am homeschooling is the "S" question. "What about Socialization."

N. has so much more energy to put into learning social skills now that he is not in an environment that stresses him so much that he can barely function.

He skateboards, he plays chess, he studies electricity and magnetism, he goes to astronomy club meetings. In all of these places, he interacts with people of a variety of ages, all of whom want to share a particular interest. He is allowed to talk to people naturally, thus he learns social communication skills in the environment where they are to be used. What a concept!

Now I want to be clear that I do not think that school caused N.'s AS or that it is cured now that he is not in that environment. Rather, I believe that when people interact in real social situations where they are together in the pursuit of a common interest or goal, they are happy to accomodate differences among themselves. It is natural for people to want to share what they love with others. AS kids are no different--they want that, too. All of those good things that contribute to "flow" in human social situations are present when people get together voluntarily to learn together: affinity, intellectual stimulation, joy. I have very rarely seen them in my years teaching secondary education. And yet it is these things that de-stress a difficult learning for kids with AS. Affinity, intellectual stimulation, joy. These are the components need for developing social skills in any human being.

My answer to people who bring up the "S" word is that school is the least likely place for optimal social interactions to take place. It is up to the schools to make changes that will provide our children with socialization appropriate to human children. If and when they do so, I will consider the school option. Until then, to use another "S" word" Sayonara.


Mama Squirrel said...

Wonderful post! Not sure if you knew that you're nominated under Best New Blog in the Homeschool Blog Awards.


coffeemamma said...

Found you through Mama Squirrel's link!

We chose to never send our Aspie daughter to school for all of the reasons you mention, plus the fact that she is claustrophobic when more than 8 or so people are in the same room.

And not one. single. person. that has interacted with dd has any clue that she is anything more than shy and quirky, unless we tell them. She has learned to interact with people at her own pace, and within her own comfort zone. Home really is the best place for these kids. Congratulations on making the right decision for your son!

Jenny said...

This was a fabulous post! My AS daughter was in a charter kindergarten last year. It was a Montessori program so I thought she would do well. Even with the freedom to choose her own workspace and work at her own pace, she still struggled. Like you said, Sometimes it seemed it took all of her energy to keeping her functioning in school and there was none left over for actual learning.

We are homeschooling this year. She now has more energy to actually work through some of the more diificult social situations.

My husband and I weren't sure about what to do for middle school as we thought we'd just take it year by year. I am really please to receive this information about AS and middle schoolers now as it will help me to think more long term.

Little Acorns Treehouse

Judy said...

Very interesting and informative post. I have to say that you were spot on about middle school and what they consider normal behavior.. it's really quite abnormal. in fact when my oldest was in 7th grade middle school before we removed him .. there was a school trip to Canada. On that trip 2 children.. yes 2 children.. attempted suicide.. and upon return from the trip, the school took the whole episode as very matter of fact.. like that was normal behavior. Their attitude was.. well the kids are away from home and they had the opportunity and this had happened before.. yada yada yada..
I was absolutely floored that the school had taken it just as an adolescent thing, and well that's just life. They considered that normal behavior for a teenager away from home. They even said so.
It is unbelievable that this is the state of education in our country and I really believe that the school environment can be extremely toxic to children.

Beth said...

This is a terrific post. Unfortunately I missed the news segments, though I did see the three minute video spot online at

I am grateful, every single day, that I was already fully committed to homeschooling when my daughter reached school age. With her sensory integration issues, she'd be eaten alive in a school setting. Homeschooling is a gift.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Wow, this one really hit it spot on.

I thought it might.

Mama squirrel--how cool that I was nominated! What fun!

To coffeemamma (love that "handle"), jenny, and beth--I am going to be going to your blogs. I have found a number of homeschool blogs by people who have kids with AS. I wonder how many of us there are. It does seem to be an ideal educational choice for our wonderful, quirky little 'Aspies'!

Judy, that is a chilling story, but all too familiar, unfortunately. It is interesting that the schools want to use all sorts of screenings to see if our kids are "abnormal" when it appears to be the school environment that is abnormal.

K said...

I wonder what kind of diagnosis my kids would have if they were in the schools. I wish my stbxH would really look at the kids. He was never for homeschooling, but belatedly thinks that it was a good choice for the kids early on, but that now they would do fine in the schools. Somehow, the things that would have been problems for them have magically disappeared. He won't read articles like this one, it's not one of his narrow areas of interest.

I understand how wild salmon must feel heading upriver to spawn.

Homeschooling AS kids makes so much more sense to me than throwing them into a group of age peers to learn to socialize from. The broader cross section and more one on one adult interaction seems the logical choice between the two to me.

Lisa Giebitz said...

I read your post on Life Without School and jumped over here to your blog.

I totally agree with the socialization thing. I'm in my 4th month of pregnancy with my first and my husband and I have already decided to focus on homeschooling. A lot of people I've talked to bring up the big 'S' word. I always reply, "Who says the socialization you get in school is POSITIVE?"

In my personal case, I was mostly socialized by my parents who took me to work with them a lot during the summer months. Adults loved me because I was polite and well-spoken at a very young age. I had a horrible time in school with my peers, but I've always been good in more adult or "professional" situations. This socialization to the professional world is something I see lacking badly in a lot of my peers. It's just sad.

Tom said...

"But the kids need to learn how to deal with this environment." Right? Haven't we all heard this, about two sentences after the S-word is dropped?

It is one of the things that has been going on for so long, that we as a culture have simply stopped questioning the veracity of that assumption. Do we in fact need to learn how to survive in that environment? Will we encounter that environment anywhere in our "real" lives?

The answer is, of course, no. Let's think about some of the places we frequent. Work? Somebody who behaves that way is likely to get a visit from HR, and if they don't shape up, fired. On the street? The sort of behind the bleachers beating that gets taken for granted on the schoolyard will get the perpetrator arrested. In a party or other social situations? The one who does the namecalling or other abuse will be recognized as the problem -- not his target.

In reality, the ONLY place we need to learn to deal with schoolyard behavior is on the schoolyard. In the rest of our lives, we need to learn how to be civil to each other. On the schoolyard, we need to learn to survive and thrive on incivility. Schools teach, if anything, Anti-social skills.

Frankie said...

another brilliant post.

jennifer in OR said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, and all the comments as well. For people who plan on homeschooling the elementary years and then putting kids in public school...think again.