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The system is not set up for kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect

A few days into the eighth grade my son Corey taught himself the Pythagorean theorem. It’s not typically taught until ninth grade, but he loves baroque language and was drawn to the unit when it popped up on the self-paced math curriculum on his computer. He began by taking the quiz at the end of the lesson and reverse-engineered his way through the parts he didn’t understand.

Corey is 14 and has a voracious thirst for knowledge. His favorite author is H.G. Wells. He loves Japanese calligraphy. Last year he produced a documentary about William Higinbotham, a member of the team that produced the first nuclear bomb and the inventor of the first computer game.

Corey also has Asperger’s. He can’t tolerate the noise a pencil makes on paper, intuit when sarcasm is inappropriate or easily turns his attention from one activity to another. Until this year, the vast majority of the interactions I had with his teachers were essentially discussions about how to make him into a compliant, neuro-typical kid. Infuriatingly, the conversations would often end with a surprised remark about how smart he was.

“There’s no reason to think he couldn’t go to college even,” his special education teacher said last year at the end of an exhausting meeting about what she perceived as his bad attitude toward school. She mentioned a local college with a middling reputation that has a special program for students with autism.


Across the table I fumed; his heart was already set on the highly rated Macalester College. To get there he’ll need help persisting when confronted by rigor. The resulting sense of mastery would be liquid gold in terms of motivation. But the only tool in many schools’ kits for managing these tough moments is to remove the challenge.

In Corey’s case, this meant frequent trips to an isolated room where, under the guise of “social skills,” he played board games. No wonder he hated school.

To parent a highly intelligent child on the autism spectrum is to continually rub up against a harsh truth about special education in most U.S. schools: The system simply is not set up for kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect. The system works hard to limit their dreams —which is a message they hear loud and clear.

The work I’ve set down every time I was called down to my boy’s schools over the last decade has been writing about education. And there’s no bigger disconnect between my professional and personal experiences than hearing the adults in education talk about ensuring every child is ready for college at graduation while continually navigating the reality of low expectations.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that kids like mine are among the students with disabilities least likely to go to college. The conversation above took place at the meeting where we were to sign a new Individualized Education Program, the federally mandated document mapping out how his needs in school would be met. He was in the seventh grade, which meant it was time to contemplate “transition services,” to plan for what happens after high school.

The first section of the transition plan was titled, “Post Secondary Education and Training.” The words that followed acknowledged his desire to go to college — a goal he, and not the adults on the team, raised–but said nothing about how he would get there. Instead there were 10 paragraphs outlining his deficits.

“Corey needs to improve his ability to meet classroom expectations by organizing his materials, starting/completing/turning in homework, and doing assignments neatly/thoroughly,” was identified as his “transition need.” No plan for helping him acquire those skills followed.

The form is designed to lay out how a young person with a more profound disability would achieve maximum independence. There are questions about personal hygiene, handling money and using public transit. Finding a college where Corey can dive deep into both genetics and marine life? There’s no box for that.

By contrast, his older brother has been pushed to challenge himself since kindergarten, when he was singled out as bright. It was practically a foregone conclusion to his teachers that he would go into his high school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate track. Their aspirations for him go beyond college-ready, to selective-college ready.

The key words in that paragraph are “since kindergarten.” With college a given, my older son’s educators have ensured at every level that he’s prepared for next steps. This kind of downward pressure doesn’t exist for kids in the middle–those whose plan for independence ought to be getting the college degree that opens the door to a good job.

A decade of reporting on efforts to ensure equity in education has left me with the conviction that this “belief gap” is an obstacle for lots of kids, be it because they are learning English, come from poverty, are of a race that’s desperately underrepresented on college campuses or have quirky brains.

This year Corey is at an innovative public charter school organized around entrepreneurship where a number of students like him are excelling. Handed standards, Venture Academy’s students build their own road-maps with adult mentors. Students are empowered to decide how they learn best.

Self-advocacy—which we know is key from the experiences of colleges actively courting students on the spectrum–is built into every step. I think it’s why it’s working.

I was thrilled to read Hechinger reporter Meredith Kolodner’s story about the increase in U.S. colleges and universities offering formal supports for students with autism. The more common moving from special ed to higher ed becomes, the more downward pressure there will be on K-12 schools to aspire for more for young people with disabilities.

Being the keeper of my son’s dreams has been lonely and agonizing. Harder still has been keeping his faith in his gifts alive. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that just like Corey figured out Pythagoras’ triangular puzzle he deserves the chance to set himself an audacious goal and work to meet it.


Beth Hawkins is a former MinnPost education reporter. She is now a writer-in-residence at Education Post. This piece is republished from Hechinger Report.

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