Autism And Education

My son and my daughter are happy, active, healthy children who enjoy school and are lucky to have a solid family life. But they are very different. My autistic son tests in the "severe" range in many subjects. At 8, he reads well but cannot answer basic questions about what he has read. He speaks at a 3-year-old level, adores "Blue's Clues" and is almost potty-trained.

My daughter, meanwhile, tests in the 95th percentile nationwide on standardized tests. At 12, she shows an amazing ability to process information, taking complex ideas apart and putting them back together to form new thoughts. She reads an entire novel most Sunday afternoons, solves the Sudoku puzzles in the paper and memorizes the entire script—not just her own lines—for the school plays she loves to be in.

At school, my son spends a portion of his day in a regular classroom. But primarily he learns in a group of two to six children led by an intervention specialist, often accompanied by an aide. Even when he's in the regular classroom, he is never without an adult by his side. His intervention specialist records everything he does in daily logs that are required to ensure funding. She often presents me with new strategies to help him learn a difficult concept, which attests to the volumes of time she dedicates to addressing his unique needs.

My son's teachers do their absolute best for him. I know they love him. But beyond that, his government-mandated Individualized Education Plan legally ensures that he gets every opportunity to excel. In addition, his teachers spend countless hours each year filling out detailed quarterly reports and other government-required paperwork. If I decide that the school district should pay for something extra to improve my son's education, I can appeal to an independent board for mediation.

My daughter spends all but three hours of her school week in a regular classroom, where she often hides a book in her desk and reads while the teacher talks. She complains to me when the teacher reteaches things she learned last year, and she resents being drilled over and over on something she learned in 10 minutes. For three hours a week, she is pulled from her classroom for a "gifted" program with 15 other children, where she works either on a group project with other students or independently on her own blog or a computer-based foreign-language program.

I can only imagine how much my daughter would excel if she had a program specifically geared to her strengths, one that challenged her creativity on a daily basis. Or if she received even half the individual attention my son receives every week. What if she had a person sitting next to her to encourage her to think of new ways of doing things? What if her teacher didn't have to manage a large classroom full of kids, who didn't scold her for "making things confusing for everyone else"? What would happen if she spent all day in a room with two to six other gifted children, along with a couple of adults who specialized in pushing them to realize their potential?

There is no government mandate to fund gifted education. In 2008 there was only $7.5 million in federal grants available through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. All additional funding comes from states and private organizations. Compare that with the $24.5 billion allotted by No Child Left Behind, a federal program whose goal is to help every child, including the mentally disabled, meet minimum standards. But is that a wise investment? Wouldn't some of those billions be more wisely spent on special teachers and mandated programs for gifted children, who have the potential to make advances in science, technology and the arts that would benefit everyone?

It pains me to suggest taking some of the federal money designated for my disabled son and spending it on my overperforming daughter. My son will probably meet minimum standards, but most parents of autistic children describe goals for their kids in much more modest terms: being able to bathe themselves, get a job, or live semi-independently. My daughter has the potential for much more. If she were given even a fraction of the customized education that my son receives, she could learn the skills needed to prevent the next worldwide flu pandemic, or invent a new form of nonpolluting transportation. Perhaps she could even discover a cure for autism.