Autism Without Fear: How 'Best Practices' Are Vastly Overrated in Today's Educational Environment

As an autism consultant employed by schools, the over-reliance I see on best practices -- even without the term's vagaries -- is vast, counter-productive given the current climate, and might be causing us to miss greater gaps in educating students on the autism spectrum, if not beyond.
08/20/2015 02:04 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2016

"Best practices" are "best" defined as ever-changing educational methods, strategies and theories that are subjectively regarded as the most effective. And by "vastly overrated" I am not implying that "worst practices" are better than "best practices." But as an autism consultant employed by schools, the over-reliance I see on best practices -- even without the term's vagaries -- is vast, counter-productive given the current climate, and might be causing us to miss greater gaps in educating students on the autism spectrum, if not beyond.

In 2003 when I was a FAR Fund Fellow, I toured group homes and supportive housing facilities. And I will never forget when one staff member proudly narrated for me how well they'd served one of their non-verbal residents.

"We really were looking into what would make Charley's life better, and then we found it! He loved music!!!"

"Seriously?" I thought. "Who's ever said, 'I hate music'?"

Well, to be honest? I have the same reaction when I hear educators say, "Well, we use best practices," to suggest guaranteed competence. Who seeks out "crappy" practices? (In truth, the concept itself is increasingly under attack.)

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Now, I have a unique perspective here. After decades of living in New York City, I moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin almost exactly a year ago. Yes, I know... "Wow" it's different... and there are educational pros and cons.

For cons, the Midwest is behind in the attitudes they bring to their spectrum students. While on the right path to self-advocacy teaching, and showing themselves eager and willing to learn, educators are unaware (or dismissive) of our eastern advances in how we interpret self-identification, and the overall improvements to self-worth, capacity for trust, and capacity for emotional regulation that these new attitudes bring. I also hear "Why do you want to put a label on him?" every now and then in the Midwest, a taboo phrase I hadn't heard since 2007.

However, New York is arguably nowhere near the advances in inclusion environments as is the Midwest. And when I moved, I did not expect to fall in love with "inclusion" as an educational standard: My concern will always be with the spectrum individual, for whom more segregated curriculums might work better, and for whom a sense of the self is easier to obtain when situated with others who are more or less of the same, neurological ilk. As a spectrum person myself, making non-spectrum kids into better people, a benefit of inclusion, is admittedly not my highest priority.

But to my surprise I have actually drunk the Kool-Aid of inclusion after my first year in Wisconsin. In working with some excellent districts in the Milwaukee area, the big picture attributes of long term community promised by inclusion, seem infinitely more within the realm of possibility than I thought prior. And as I regard being a good person as a higher priority than being smart, consider me converted.

That said, unsupported, segregated environments will fare far better than the disaster that will occur in unsupported inclusion environments. Regular education (i.e. inclusion) teachers are not trained in the ways of autism spectrum behaviors, while their special education brothers and sisters are. Among many things, inclusion programs need staff development (outside of best practices) and high-quality teacher's aides.

Without staff development, overwhelmed teachers could misinterpret natural, healthy, spectrum curiosities as disrespect, or as an inability to learn.

And without high-quality aides, my special needs kids, during periods of frustration, will not have that buddy to give them a break outside the classroom, and their in-class sorrows will prevent their neurotypical classmates from learning. This causes unjust stigma to the special needs kids once the other kids' parents get a whiff of why their kids aren't learning.

And currently, this unsupported inclusion scenario -- the "current climate" that I referred to at the beginning -- is becoming more and more the rule, rather than the exception.

In my new home of Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker successfully implemented education cuts in the newly-signed state budget that, when inflation is factored in, cuts funding for every school district in the state (he also implemented a $250 million cut to the state university system). Now, even the most hardline Republicans back east know that it would be political suicide for them to cut education funding. It's just not done. But in Wisconsin, a very different culture has taken place that belies its history of educational advancement. As one university official told me, "In Wisconsin, if you have a Ph.D. you're not respected, you're an elitist." These changes didn't happen overnight. The demonization of public education has been an ongoing agenda item of Walker and his supporters for years. And it could spread: Other gubernatorial administrations are watching to see if Walker wins the PR war on this issue.

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Teachers and administrators, as a result, feel abandoned, if not the targets of vitriol from a public they chose to serve. I don't blame the Walker administration for such comic/tragic thoughtlessness. I blame opponents of Walker who for reasons of Midwestern politeness, or bad habits of "same old, same old," don't collectively know how to put up much of a fight.

And whether that "same old, same old" revolves around a) state Democrats hiring the same campaign consultants over and over again -- despite dismal election success percentages; or b) schools contracting their autism services at around $1200 a day--from local agencies who pay their "autism experts," at best, $40 an hour (with no guaranteed hours or benefits)... you get what you paid for.

Inclusion teachers are consequently depressed, and inspirational slogans won't resuscitate them. They do not have the excitement towards their careers that they once had. It has put them into the bind of finding their local environments to be so problematic that they do not keep up with national developments in the field that somewhere, I know they still love. And this is silly because such feelings of belonging are exactly what they need. Back in New York, not every special education professional had read the new bible/book on disabilities -- Andrew Solomon's "Far From the Tree" -- but they all knew it was out there. In Wisconsin, when I suggest the book to educators, I experience some variation of "Never heard of it." It breaks my heart (and I fear that Barry Prizant's excellent, newly-released, "Uniquely Human," will suffer the same fate).

I know these teachers now. They're not dumb, nor dull, and they are often heroic under the circumstances. They're underpaid compared to neighboring states, and they've simply had the figurative stuffing beaten out of them while no one (they have no union, by the way) of any impact has risen up to defend them.

So, to bring it back to "best practices": Staff morale -- teachers and administrators -- as well as the morale of spectrum kids is more important than we seem to understand because teaching will always be about the singer, not the song.

I learned this from my mother, a teacher, who (forgive me, Mom) was smart, but not at all the smartest teacher in her school. Still, she was the kids' favorite. Why?

Because she was a happy, vibrant, optimistic, and interesting human being, who also felt supported by her community.

As a parent or a student, I'd want a "worst practice" taught by someone like my mother, rather than a best practice taught by someone who feels unsupported. How we implement programs most often means more than the programs themselves. Getting out of the "same old, same old" would be a start.

Oh, and by the way? No one gets to say that public schools are failing when they're not given what they need to succeed.

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Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee 2008), "Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum," (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), "'Why Am I Afraid of Sex?' Building Sexual Confidence in the Autism Spectrum...and Beyond!" (also Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and "The Last Memoir of Asperger's Syndrome" (unpublished). In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Re-evaluated in 2014, he was diagnosed with ASD. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com