My Daughter With Autism Relies on Public Education & I'm Terrified for the Future


Jody Allard
My autistic daughter is 9 years old. She loves "My Little Pony" and cats, and she draws pictures that take my breath away with their detail. She's the first person to offer support when someone is sad, and it's easy to see why being around other people overwhelms her: She feels deeply, whether joy or pain. Betsy DeVos has never met my daughter, but a few words come to mind when I think of Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education: You don't give a sh-t about kids.

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You might think that's harsh, but for me this is personal. I believe that DeVos's plans would destroy the progress that disability rights activists have fought long and hard for, and without those accommodations, my daughter wouldn't be able to attend public school.

During her confirmation hearings on Tuesday, DeVos repeatedly said that the decision whether to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees all students a free appropriate public education regardless of disability, was a matter "best left to the states."

Even when reminded that this could lead to some states' refusing to provide a quality education for disabled students, DeVos doubled down on her statement that the decision should be up to the states. Eventually, DeVos backpedaled, claiming to have misunderstood the question, IDEA, or maybe even education in general, but to that I say bullsh-t. She's made it very clear where she stands.

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My daughter is in third grade. She began her education in a public school without any extra help. She had been diagnosed with autism only a few months before, and while I knew she would need help at school, I had no idea what that might look like. Even though she didn't have an individualized education plan (IEP) -- a legally binding document that stipulates how a child will be supported in order to access his or her right to a free appropriate education under IDEA -- in place, the school administration leapt into action. For her first few days at school, special education teachers took turns acting as her de facto aide, helping her through her school day, and taking her out of her general education classroom into a quiet resource room when she became overwhelmed.


Jody Allard

By the time my daughter was midway through her first year of school, it was clear to everyone involved that she needed more than just a little extra help. The self-contained special education classroom was loud and overwhelming to her, and the students there worked on a different curriculum than general education students. My daughter was capable of working near grade-level, but she couldn't handle the noise and demands of a general education classroom all day either. Every afternoon, she began head-banging and screaming in the car as soon as I picked her up. I was at my wit's end trying to find a way to make school work for my daughter without torturing her. That's when her special education teacher offered me a solution.

There was nowhere for my daughter to go at that school that met her needs, but the teacher told me there were other schools in the district with autism-focused inclusion programs that would help her move between general education and special education environments. I was excited about this option, certain it would give my daughter what she needed. Within a few weeks, we made the transfer.

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My daughter's new school is every parent's dream. It's an alternative public school with a whole child focus, where kids use 3D printers in science and create Native American villages in history. On Fridays, they learn beading on a loom or Afro-Brazilian dance. The teachers are gentle and caring, and their classrooms are open and homey, a place where most students feel supported as they learn.

But things are different for my daughter. No matter how easygoing her teachers are, she's still in a general education classroom with 25 other students. When her classmates talk to her and include her in their games, she turns away and speaks to them through the curtain of her hair. Every ounce of social engagement adds up until eventually she explodes. On her better days, she is able to ask her aide for a break; on her worst days, she melts down, kicking and screaming in the egg chair her teacher put in the corner of the classroom for her.

Even with the support of aides, my daughter can't handle full days at school. She leaves at lunchtime, where we drive 30 minutes to another city for three hours of autism therapies. I've begged the school to provide these therapies at school, but the administration tells me she doesn't need them. I've raised my concerns up every rung in the ladder, but no one wants to provide expensive therapy at school -- even though my daughter didn't learn to read until she began these therapies; even though she made more progress in 12 weeks of autism therapy than she had in the prior two school years combined; even though I can't work, in part, because I have to drive her there.

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What DeVos doesn't seem to understand is that disabled kids are already struggling to have their needs met under IDEA. Sometimes, we need the right to due process just to get our kids the services they need and that the schools are required to provide. If things are this bad now, it's not hard to imagine what they'll look like under DeVos. All we have to do is remember a time when disabled children were institutionalized or hidden away in special education classrooms.

The thought of my daughter being treated like a second-class citizen is enraging.

If DeVos gets voted in, it's very likely my daughter won't be able to attend public school. I don't have the resources to send her to a private school, and most of them aren't equipped to meet her needs anyway. My daughter will have to be homeschooled, placing the sole burden of her education on me -- a burden I'm ill-equipped to shoulder. I'm her mother, not a teacher. I don't want to homeschool my daughter; I want public school to do its job.

Disabled kids deserve an education that meets their needs. The only way that will happen is if Congress sends DeVos back to whatever hole she came from and finds a secretary of education who understands and appreciates disabled kids instead of viewing them as a liability. In a Trump administration, that might be nearly impossible, but our kids deserve nothing less. 

 

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