Home education isolates the autistic

I have a buddy named Berry who’s strikingly introverted. For years it was difficult to get him out of his room, where he played cards by himself. Lately however, Berry is starting to enjoy the outside world. He likes to go the Mall of America, but I find it taxing to accompany him on such trips. He doesn’t stroll through the mall area, he speed-walks, and he doesn’t move out of anyone’s way — including children. This is complicated by the fact that he resembles a twin of Mike Tyson’s. While speed walking, he snaps his fingers, whoo-hoos loudly, and periodically jerks his head forward as if he were sneezing. He also likes to approach random people and say “hi” to them, but he doesn’t ever wait for them to respond. Like half a million other people in the country, Berry is autistic.
One day, while passing by a store that sells gambling equipment in the Mall of America, he spied, in the display case, what he thought to be an attractive deck of cards. Some might say the 21-year-old man is a connoisseur of playing cards, but I wouldn’t. The word “connoisseur” usually implies someone who can separate the wheat from the chaff when exposed to his or her object of interest. But Berry doesn’t discriminate. He likes all cards, and this is very apparent in the way that he always has at least five decks of dog-eared cards in his pockets at any given time.
In fact, if it were up to Berry, he would spend the entire day in his room by himself playing cards like he used to. While playing cards, he doesn’t play games and he doesn’t build card castles. Instead, he takes the cards one-by-one off the deck and slaps them onto the table. After this, he lifts one half of the card up and lets it go, creating a “snapping” sound.
Such a fixation is common among autistic people. Because they often find themselves unbearably distressed by the infinite amount of information the world offers, autistic people will almost always try and simplify their world with an intense fixation. Autistic people obsess on things of all sorts, but the fixations tend to be highly specific — like the winder of a watch, or, as in Berry’s case, the snapping sound of a playing card.
But as lacking as his social skills obviously are, they have massively improved from last year, wherein he made a habit of clobbering himself in the head or biting his arm every time he confronted the public. In fact, a couple of years ago he took a nugget-sized bite out of his wrist that left a lifetime scar.
Berry is one of many autistic clients at a place called Community Cooperative Programs, an organization devoted to integrating people with special needs into society. The demand for this program was spawned by the fact that most autistic people severely lack social skills and going out into the public sphere is the best way for them to acquire such skills.
This is why it was distressing to see Monday’s Star Tribune article titled “Educating Erik,” about the parents of an autistic child who are attempting to get the Minneapolis School District to fund his specialized home schooling, which costs $34,000 a year.
Erik Nordberg is a 7-year-old autistic child whose home schooling has been administered by a team of six therapists who reinforce completed tasks with chunks of cheese. The therapists teach him words by presenting to him an object — like a spoon — and repeating the name of the object hundreds of times. When he is able to identify the object, they throw him a piece of cheese and move to the next object. His parents argue that he needs this specialized education to eventually function in the world without the impairments of autistic behaviors.
Minneapolis schools’ autism coordinator, Ann Fox, suggests Erik enroll in the autism program at Ramsey International Fine Art Center, where he can learn social skills in a less structured, more realistic setting among peers. “It’s so unnatural for a kid to do what he’s doing, spending 12 hours a day at a desk,” she said.
Part of the problem is that parents sometimes get the false impression that autism is curable. Though some of the symptoms are treatable, the disease itself is about as curable as a severed leg. According to the Autism Society of America, there is no cure for the brain dysfunctions caused by autism, because the disease is strictly neurological. In Erik’s case, his parents’ refusal to allow him to attend the Ramsey school was a product of their thinking they could “cure” his ailments. Instead, the program could easily backfire, leaving him forever over-stimulated by the world outside his home.
This case adds yet another page to the book of heated special education debates in America. While 8.3 percent of the student population needed special education services in 1974, 12.1 percent require these services now. This has resulted in a $25 billion increase in special education funding in the last 20 years, much of which, many people say, is ill-funded. Despite the fact that Erik’s home education would only cost the district $34,000, this case could set a precedence whereby parents of kids with all kinds of diagnoses could request funding for home schooling that is equally inadequate.
Living a decent life requires being able to keep one’s composure in public. People who are agitated by the great wide open tend to avoid it like an electric shock. Panic attack victims, for instance, frequently become agoraphobic, oftentimes refusing to step out of their houses for years at a time. The only remedy for such an ailment is exposure itself.
Right now my friend Berry is slowly emerging from his cocoon, thanks to exposure. Learning how to do ordinary tasks such as order french fries at McDonald’s or sit on a bus without harming himself and others around him have been made possible by direct experience alone, not by telling him how to do so while he snaps cards onto his living room floor.
The Nordbergs should realize the same is true of their son. Extracting money from the school district to further his home schooling will only solidify his isolation. It would set a bad precedence and waste money, but worst of all, it would be detrimental to his social development.
Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday.