Autism and the Madison School District

Michael Winerip, via a kind reader:

People with autism are often socially isolated, but the Madison public schools are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes. Now, as a high school junior, Garner, 17, has added his little twist to many lives.
He likes to memorize plane, train and bus routes, and in middle school during a citywide scavenger hunt, he was so good that classmates nicknamed him “GPS-man.” He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. “Garner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,” said Casey Hopp, his coach.
Garner’s on the swim team, too, and gets rides to practice with a teammate, Michael Salerno. On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks it’s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. “They get angry,” the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. “Then they see it’s Garner, and he gets away with it. And that’s how practice begins.”

16 thoughts on “Autism and the Madison School District”

  1. Great article. The MMSD is a leader in this area, thanks to the hard work of many unselfish parents and staff over the past 2 decades.

  2. There are several things I find troubling about this article.
    First – the language. Full Inclusionists toss around inflammatory wording with a great deal of self righteousness. I am old enough to remember when segregation was a painful, hateful, institution African Americans suffered in this country. To imply that Full Inclusion is the opposite of such corruption is despicable and trivializes that experience. I realize that there was a time when special ed kids were forced into separation too – I know this better than most Full Inclusionists because I experienced it. In my case it turns out that I was not “retarded” as my class was called back then, but an advanced learner and had checked out. (It is known that gifted students who are not provided intellectual peers and the speed and depth of education they need can take this route).
    The term Full Inclusion is a misnomer in itself. It is not inclusion if it does not meet the student’s needs and don’t we know that a wide variety of children have a wide variety of needs? Can all be met in the same classroom?
    For awhile I received Madison Partners for Inclusive Education emails but became disgusted by the narrow mindedness of the religiously zealous Full Inclusionists. Parents who did not know about the limited views of this group would unwittingly write in that their child did better in a designated special ed room than in a regular classroom when they lived in another city, and ask how they could go about finding one here, only to be told by Full Inclusionists on the list serv that the problem must be the aide, the teacher, or the principal (or maybe the parent for not understanding or trying). Full Inclusionists doggedly believe that it works for EVERYONE.
    There are special ed students who suffer a great deal because of this narrow minded tenacity. I know of a young man who is absolutely miserable, screamingly so, when around a large group of people. Yet his parents were so convinced of the value of Full Inclusion for everyone, that they sent him to a public high school, where he bellowed miserably all the time. I think this is downright cruel.
    I often wonder in such cases if Full Inclusion is truly for the sake of the child or for the parents’ need to feel included. Or maybe the unfortunate parents have simply been brain washed to believe it is best. Certainly it is unPC to say or believe anything else.
    Full Inclusion is an extremist fundamentalism that has grown out of the restrictions special ed students experienced years ago. But like an extremist religion, regardless of how good the initial intentions may have been, anything taken to an extreme is a problem, and any religion forced on everyone is oppression itself.

  3. For what it’s worth, an anonymous posting that doesn’t acknowledge that the MMSD does NOT practice full inclusion and, at the same time, fails to acknowledge how the MMSD has been successful with their own brand of inclusionary practices, strikes me as rather disingenuous…and no, it has nothing to do with TAG JQP, although I’m grateful that my autistic TAG child has been fully included:)

  4. Disingenuous, David? One thing you are consistent for is derailing arguments to redirect them into personal attacks.
    About pseudonyms, I’ll fill you in. From the late-18th to early-19th centuries, it was established practice for political articles to be signed with pseudonyms. A well-known American pseudonym was the pen name “Publius”, used by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, in writing The Federalist Papers. I feel I am in good company. And certainly noms de guerres have been used when it is politically unsafe to use one’s real name, which I believe is the current situation.
    I’m so glad you are happy with how everything is here in MMSD, David. You have made that very very clear in your SIS posts and I’m sure everyone in the MMSD administration loves you for it. Now consider having some sensitivity to the fact that not everyone has had your family’s wonderful experience.

  5. And the gloves are off! As usual, Mr. Cohen — head MMSD cheerleader with the perfect family and the perfect MMSD experience — started it.
    But back to business —
    Based on my many years of experience in the classroom, something I would love to see (and have asked for many times) is an analysis of race, SES and special ed spending. More specifically, what I’d like to see is — within each special ed category — what is the per pupil expenditure for minority versus non-minority students and for free/reduced lunch versus non-free/reduced lunch students. I have long suspected that more school district money is spent on middle and upper middle class white kids with IEP’s than on poor minority kids with IEP’s.
    Also, JQP’s point about the way families who actually WANT a protected learning environment for their children are treated is something I’ve heard about over the years, too.

  6. No wonder John Q Public and Alexander Hamilton need to use pseudonyms.
    The general dopiness of the comments, and childish name-calling and labeling is a good reason for pseudonyms.
    Regarding inclusion. It doesn’t matter what theory of inclusion one holds, doesn’t matter how many people agree with you, doesn’t matter how good the research is, if an inclusion decision based on that theory does not work for a particular kid, it’s wrong.
    My personal experience with pulling my daughter out for ESL classes is a case in point — very damaging to her self-esteem (made her feel “stupid” — her words), a waste of time (she didn’t need the low level ESL that she was being forced to take), and resulted in her becoming behind in the classes she was forced to miss.
    Key problem: Teachers and administrators slavish obedience to theory without regard to the needs of the child. That is, a theory or belief is wrong if it fails to work in practice.
    Signed Larry Winkler — not a pseudonym.

  7. Never said we’ve had a thoroughly wonderful experience, simply pointing out that the majority of it has been excellent. A few duds along the way but hey, that’s life. And if you think I’m the Chief MMSD Cheerleader, you don’t know me at all- just ask some northsiders or Art Rainwater! You simply are pushing the discussion the far fringes, creating a false war between TAG and Special Ed..not surprising here of course…I think there is plenty of room for both good and bad experiences, but claiming the MMSD is fully inclusional is just false.

  8. O.K., everybody, breathe. Breathe deeply.
    FWIW, when I spoke to Mike Winerip, I did my best to help him understand what the vision of “full inclusion” has become in Madison. It’s not simply a matter of high-functioning children (mostly from well-to-do families, let’s be honest with ourselves) with autism spectrum disorders being in regular classrooms rather than housed fulltime and restrictively in the special ed classes of yore. I tried to give him a feel for the full range of human behavior, problems, abilities and challenges we’re talking about and that one typically sees in an MMSD classroom. I talked about how well this works or does not work, in my opinion, as you move up the grade levels, as class size increases, as course content becomes more concentrated and important, and as post-high school planning kicks in. I did my best to help him see and understand the HUGE complexity of what we’re dealing with and how race, language, social class, politics (and political correctness), increasing expenses and shrinking budgets impact the situation. I told him about “the tension,” identified but not addressed by the new Strategic Plan, and the District’s mission to insure that ALL students fulfill their potential. I tried to help him see the situation not from the perspective of one family for whom it’s working, but from that of a school district and a city for whom it may well not be. I sent him the District’s open enrollment data from the past two years, with explanation of what they mean and why some people (myself included) are very worried by them.
    Obviously that’s not the story he wanted to write … at least not right now.

  9. precisely the point here…the NYT article was about successful mainstreaming of autistic students. why folks see the need to dismiss this seems silly. there are many undeniable success stories and certainly undeniable failures, but this article featured the successes. i can tell you from over a decade of personal experience that a lot of sweat, courage and hard work goes into every success story. likewise, I’m certain much frustration is borne from those who do not succeed. that’s the nature of this particular beast.

  10. When I visit friends with kids who live in other cities and describe the inclusion system we have here they just can’t believe it. They are incredulous that a city like Madison could be that naive and well, crazy! A friend of mine has a 13 year old son with Asperger’s who has impulsive, violent episodes. After he tried to stab his teacher with a pencil, he was expelled, and my friend was given the choice of 3 therapeutic public schools for him to attend. Three – count ’em – and in a city no larger than Madison! After visiting them all, she chose one that she thought was the best fit for him. He has been given a special therapeutic behavioral program and his behavior is improving. And he is happier because he really didn’t want to be doing violent things, and feels safer and calmer in his new environment, and is actually learning. His mom is happy because she isn’t being called to come to the school for some embarrassing bad action like she used to be, and the teachers and kids at the regular school can work and learn in a safe environment.
    But what about here in the Madison? Where the hell are our therapeutic schools? Instead MMSD uses a heavy dose of denial that we really don’t have those problems to deal with here, and a good aide can take care of anything.
    Wake up Madison!

  11. “Precisely the point here…the NYT article was about successful mainstreaming of autistic students. why folks see the need to dismiss this seems silly. there are many undeniable success stories and certainly undeniable failures, but this article featured the successes.”
    But the article seemed to be implying overwhelming success well beyond this one case. In that sense, it was unforgivably misleading.
    I have a question. Is the school district legally required to pay for supports needed for kids to participate in extra-curricular activities? I was struck by how this boy from a well-off family had a college student paid for by the MMSD so he could do sports after school. What about the poor kid with autism who isn’t even getting what they need in the classroom?

  12. Yes, nice article overall even if it lacked some points folks might like to have seen in it.
    The MMSD’s ability to meet the needs of its autistic students is mixed, likely depending in part upon the specific needs of each student. Yes, they are probably doing a much better jobs than most US school districts. But that is in part due to the Madison area having many physicians, psychologists and educators who are autism specialists.
    For example, when my twice-exceptional older son was in 5th grade, I arranged for there to be a meeting of the Hamilton MS assistant principal, the MMSD district TAG coordinator, the Hamilton TAG coordinator, a Hamilton special ed person, my son’s elementary school special ed person, etc. We spent over an hour discussing how Hamilton MS would meet his needs if he went there for 6th grade, his neighborhood middle school. The conclusion was they couldn’t do a satisfactory job meeting either his academic or special ed needs. Part of the problem was as fundamental as the fact that Hamilton scheduled 6th graders to have all 4 of their main academic subjects in a row during the morning before lunch. I don’t know any A.S.D. or A.D.H.D. kids who can sit still focusing well for 3+ hours. I doubt there are many neurotypical kids who can either. Yet, the principal at the time insisted that was the way it would be because it worked out best for scheduling, especially with some of the 6th graders over at Hoyt in the morning. Fortunately for us, we could afford to send him elsewhere to a private school that could do a better job of meeting his needs for middle school. But what happens to kids whose families can’t afford this latter option or don’t know how to work the system to try to insure their child’s needs are well met?
    My personal experience is that things can be worked out more easily at the high school level because students’ schedules can be individualized.

  13. Well Anon, I personally know of 7 children on the autism spectrum who have found great success in the MMSD, including 2 who have gotten Math degrees from the UW in the past 6 years. However, autism is a spectrum disorder, so inherent in that you will find largely divergent success rates and skill sets…

  14. What I meant was that the article seemed to be implying the success of full inclusion for ALL students — not just students with autism spectrum disorders from middle and upper middle class families. It seemed to imply success for all kinds of students, all of the different kinds of students who are included and all of the different kinds of students who were there to begin with, as it were. It seemed to be implying that this is working well for all students, the entire district, and the entire community. But that is not true at all. That’s why I think the article is unforgivably misleading.
    But more importantly, can you please answer the question about the district paying for extra-curricular supports? Is the district legally required to pay for a college student to help a high school student be able to participate in an after-school activity?

  15. I honestly don’t know if the district is required to pay for extra curricular assistance. I don’t think they are “required” to, and perhaps the Athletic Director at Memorial worked something out in the interest of one of his students. I don’t see any harm in that. Surely it wasn’t a massive expense. Maybe someone who is intimately familiar with how the American Disabilities Act interfaces with high school athletics could chime in here.
    I didn’t read the article to imply that full inclusion is successful for all, regardless of the socio-economic status of their families. Those of us with disabled children know that in reality, the practical application of full inclusion is a pipe dream filled with both tears of joy and nightmarish application. But, as a former mentor at work (and an ex-Navy Admiral) used to tell me, “if you don’t ask, you’ll never get laid.”

  16. The following was forwarded to me by an interested reader:
    Extracurriculars and IDEA: Here’s the statute from the reauth of 2004:
    Sec. 300.117 Nonacademic settings.
    In providing or arranging for the provision of nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, including meals, recess periods, and the services and activities set forth in Sec. 300.107, each public agency must ensure that each child with a disability participates with nondisabled children in the extracurricular services and activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that child. The public agency must ensure that each child with a disability has the supplementary aids and services determined by the child’s IEP Team to be appropriate and necessary for the child to participate in nonacademic settings.
    (Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(5))

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