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One Out of 68 Kids Is on the Autistic Spectrum, and Who Will Educate the Educators?

04/04/2014 10:43 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2014

I just saw a woman at the nail salon who taught my children 30 years ago. She informed me she was still subbing at age 85 because she loves being a teacher. "Good for you," I replied. As it turns out, however, maybe not so good for some of the kids she ends up teaching.

She proceeded to launch into a critique of all things new that she doesn't like: Parents are too busy and often there is just one parent. Kids spend too much time on the Internet. No one disciplines kids anymore. And finally, "they" let kids with "issues" participate in regular classes. "Integration," I think she called it.

"I really don't understand the integration (inclusion) thing that's going on. How can a teacher manage a class that includes kids with attention deficit and autism and kids that have behavior problems? They scream and throw things. No one should have to have kids like this in class. They don't belong there."

I pointed out that there are a lot of "those kids" these days. I wondered aloud if children with special needs are probably unhappier to be in classes where no one is meeting their needs than their teachers are having them there. I thought (and wish I had said), they scream and throw things for a reason.

I wondered afterwards if her attitude was the lament of a woman far too old to be working with children or if it reflected how some of her colleagues felt.  Her slip of the tongue calling it "integration" was no accident (thank you, Dr. Freud).  The right of children with special needs to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible is the law. Schools that do not comply with the law are not so different from schools during the civil rights era in which children were racially segregated.  Back in the '60s, many people felt those children didn't belong either.

According to the recent report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 68 children is diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, an increase of 30 percent from two years ago. In 2011, the CDC reported that 11 percent of children ages 3-17 are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Overall, about one in six children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2011, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. 

That's a lot of kids to leave out! Yes, bringing them into classrooms with typically developing children makes teaching harder. So do poverty, hunger, and home lives filled with uncertainty and chaos. So do children who don't speak English and children who have witnessed violence.  But this is our world.

We cannot say we want our children's classrooms to reflect the diverse world in which we live, but only in the politically correct pretty way that children are a rainbow of colors. Part of that diversity includes kids who scream because they do not have words, kids who throw things because they are filled with anger and rage, kids who act out because the adults in their lives have hurt them, and kids who don't listen to directions because they can't process them with all of the other noise in their heads.

To love being a teacher is to love children and embrace them as they come to you.  It's easy to love the child who does all of the homework, has the right answers, stays in her seat, and colors in the lines.  The true test of a great teacher is to be able to love the square pegs that will never fit into the round holes.  To stop pounding on them in an effort to force them to fit and to start appreciating them as the unique but beautiful children they are. 

In a just and truly diverse classroom community, every child belongs. To reach this goal, teachers need to have up-to-date training, or retraining, in child development for both typical and atypical children. They need to understand how to help every child rise to his or her potential. They also may need extra help in the classroom and support from school administrators. We can't afford to think like the teacher in the nail salon and short change so many of our children.

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An earlier version of this post originally appeared on ChicagoNow , October 7, 2013.