Thursday, September 22, 2005

When Confidentiality Equals Divide and Conquer

The intent behind special education law is laudable: all children deserve an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. I doubt you could find many people who would argue that automatic institutionalization or segregation of students with educational needs is a good thing. And I think over the past several decades we’ve learned a few things about education. Probably most notably that all students do not learn in the same way and that education is collaborative; i.e., students construct knowledge and learn from one another.

So diversity in the classroom is useful for all children. But the push to apply rigid standards to all children has created some unanticipated pressures for kids, like my son, who have ‘hidden’ challenges. In the effort to preserve confidentiality, and on the advice of our school, the children he interacts with on a daily basis do not know he has Asperger’s Syndrome. On the surface, this seems like a wise idea: why give children any reason or label to make fun of another student. In practice, it doesn’t work. So my son’s ‘disability’ is confidential.

Guess what? The kids know he is different. Non-disclosure does not change his wonderful quirkiness in any way. But it does cut us off from one another. Wouldn’t it be great of all the Aspie kids in middle school could form an advocacy group? Or have the parents create an email listserve to share gripes and successes? No can do. The school cannot disclose that information and we are all so wrapped up in helping our children ‘pass’ that we inadvertently give the message that being themselves is not OK.

And what about disclosing to the other children? If my son had CP, walked with crutches, or was blind, then maybe, just maybe the other kids would cut him some slack. Maybe the teachers wouldn’t forget that he has auditory processing delays and fine motor control issues that affect the legibility of his handwriting. But because he looks like any other kid and has academic strengths, there is an expectation that he *is* like any other kid.

Well, he isn’t and I should know. I was also not like any other kid. There was no language to explain AS in the 1960s and 1970s, but like my son, I’m an Aspie. I emerged from my childhood with some hidden scars, but also with many successes due to a loving family and meeting an amazing man in college who has been my husband for 17 years. I can ‘pass’ for normal, or neuro-typical as we say in the Aspie world, but I am most comfortable alone or with other slightly out of phase folks. I am through being afraid or ashamed of who I am. I am through with listening to the messages that isolate me from those who could be friends and allies. But mostly I am through believing in the wisdom of divide and conquer.

It is time for a change.

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