Margaret Sullivan, in her June 26 commentary about the Minneapolis Public Schools autism program (“Changes in citywide autism program need not be feared”), suggests that parents concerned about the upcoming changes for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the district “take a giant calming breath” because proposed changes will affect “fewer than 25 kindergartners.”
Yes, it is true: 23 incoming kindergartners with ASD have been denied access to essential supports despite individual need. We are deeply concerned for these 5-year-olds for they face possible trauma, with potential lifelong consequences, due to inadequate support in their community schools. We are even more concerned that the district plans to continue refusing admittance to similar kindergartners, year after year. In time, Minneapolis schools will be full of students with autism without access to adequate help.
There are further reasons for our concern. For instance, the district is closing some ASD early-childhood special-education classrooms, denying access to preschoolers who need them and increasing class sizes so the very young students who do attend can no longer get the focused intervention they need. Even though early intervention is the best hope for children on the spectrum, with increased caseloads and many of these kids in diapers, a highly effective program risks deteriorating into simple day care.
Moreover, the environment of children in general-education classes will be affected. A number of the children with ASD being sent to community schools have sensory vulnerabilities that can lead them to melt down — loudly and occasionally violently. If these children were in a citywide autism program school, the ASD teachers and paraprofessionals, trained to watch for the signs that precipitate a meltdown, would remove a child approaching overload from the mainstream classroom before the child became disruptive.
It is not just a small group of parents who are advocating against these changes. More than 4,000 people have signed a petition asking that the district maintain its current level of support for students with autism. Signatories include parents of graduates of the program, parents of general-education students at schools with programs, adults with autism, general-education teachers, special-education teachers and nationally recognized experts.
Teachers who know these children best are also speaking out, albeit privately. They are too frightened for their jobs to go public. More than a dozen have sent detailed anonymous letters to the school board describing why these changes are ill-conceived and potentially harmful.
Unfortunately, key district administrators have engaged in deceptive and misleading practices in their communications with the public and possibly in their communications with the school board itself. For example, the district is calling the new plan the “Expanded Choice Program” and, sometimes, the “Inclusive Community School Model.” But children with autism have always had the choice to go to their community schools. By not permitting previously qualified children to attend an autism program, with its multiple supports, choice for parents of children with autism is greatly reduced. Because they will not have proper support, their opportunities for inclusion will rapidly diminish.
The district office denies that the gradual but massive removal of autism supports is a “policy” change, arguing that this nomenclature allows it to proceed without school board approval.
So, by default, our school board has been led to allow these momentous changes to occur without board review — changes designed and implemented by two district staff members new to their jobs under the supervision of an interim superintendent. We urge that the board not abdicate its oversight responsibility; these changes are far too consequential to be left to a new and untested staff.
The citywide autism program has been highly successful in helping any number of children grow into adults who are contributing members of society. We want it to continue to be available to all children with autism. At the same time, we stand with those who are committed to effective educational programming for all children, especially those who struggle to learn in school. All children in Minneapolis, whether or not they have a disability, deserve an education that will help them develop their potential to contribute to their families and to our society as a whole.
Mary Ursu is a member of ChARM, Children’s Autism Rights Minneapolis.