When helping students holds them back

Why Haven’t The Done That Yet?

This post comes from my thought process in one of my new positions. I am tasked with helping students transition out of self contained special education classrooms and into the general education setting.

If you love them, set them free

What I have come to notice in my time in special education is that we love to be helpful. In fact, we sometimes get a little too enthusiastic in our helpfulness. I saw a tweet today that really drew my attention. This is totally taken out of any context, but that is how I read it:

This struck me because we often hold students back and deny them certain rights by nature of our “helping”. We choose to help people by doing things for them. We choose to help people by telling or dictating to them what they should be thinking or saying. We squash their creativity, we belittle them, we condescend. In the course of our helping, we are actively holding them back. We are preventing them from growing as people..

For the sake of this post, the help I refer to is the provision of special education services, particularly in self contained classrooms. We often look at our assessments and we fear that our students will fail in the general eduction classroom unless they score 100% correct on every assessment, and even then they have to do it quickly and with automaticity. These students not only have to behave in class as well as their peers, but they have to have perfect behavior…all the time…even when stressed and things are difficult. Anxiety has to go away. They must show perfect attending, even when teacher is not speaking and other students are being disruptive. Depression has to dissipate. Being a normal kid is not good enough. Perfection or bust!

This perspective worries me. In my last position I saw potential in students that other teachers did not. I spoke with the parents about this potential and some were terrified of taking any chances with their child’s education. This is a commendable worry for a parent, but as I see it, moving students into inclusion, mainstreaming, or even a general education classroom full time is the goal. In fact, it is something every child, even those with disabilities, is entitled to.

My perspective comes from growing up with a twin brother that was very autistic. Kyle had a host of adaptive function problems. Kyle had uncontrollable compulsive/obsessive behaviors. Kyle could be aggressive if he lost his temper. Kyle had a need to pace and stim. Kyle was nonverbal-a computer talked for him. And yet…none of that ever held him back. And my parents did not ever let the narrative of a broken little kid enter into the picture when it came to Kyle. An quite frankly, neither did Kyle.

Kyle was a pioneer

My thought processes always seem to comes back to Kyle. When Kyle was little, he needed a lot of help. CBTU was there to teach him the basics of attending and social skills like not attacking the teachers for disciplining other students. Elementary school (K-4) was there to help Kyle learn basic study skills and get the hang of communicating with others using his communication devices. In high school and post-high, Kyle needed training in job skills and to get out into the community. Academically, Kyle didn’t need help. In fact, in 1st grade his teacher wrote in Kyle’s IEP file something to the effect that: Kyle doesn’t test at all, but there is so much in him. We just need to keep teaching him new things and who knows where Kyle will end.

When Kyle was going to enter the 4th grade, the decision was made to hold him back into third again. But, he was to continue to receive spelling and math in general education. The rationale was that if he could spell, he could read (note, even to the end Kyle could spell any multisyllabic medical term or random word perfectly on the first try). Kyle was held back to repeat the third grade because 4th grade is when school becomes abstract and Kyle was not quite ready. However, when Kyle reached 5th grade, the decision was made (by Kyle himself-he let mom know what he wanted) that Kyle needed to embrace the challenges of general education. More clearly, Kyle told mom he wanted normal school. So my mother gave him access-she put her foot down and made it happen. Fifth grade was good. Sixth grade was hard, and Kyle really came into his own in 7th grade. It does not matter that Kyle was nonverbal, it does not matter that Kyle was unable to write with a pencil or pen, it does not matter that Kyle walked down the halls with his ears plugged and his backpack and laptop bags swinging loosely off his arms as he did so; Kyle was going to succeed in “normal” school. And he did.

Interestingly, once Kyle entered the mainstream he never looked back. There was no resource support for him. We would have loved for there to be, but he was not performing at a low enough level to qualify under the discrepancy model (be fair, he would not have qualified under any model, As and Bs do not receive resource). My mother sat down with Kyle for hours after school to help re-teach and act as a scribe for Kyle’s homework. Kyle got good grades in general education classes. He was happy. He made friends. In short, he succeeded. All this was done in the 1980s and 1990s, long before we had the support we celebrate for autistic students today. In fact, my mother had to be rather blunt and stubborn with the school district to make sure Kyle had access to the general education. It was unprecedented, and in many ways still is to some extent. So, on top of all of his accomplishments, Kyle was a pioneer. He did not let his challenges hold him back-and my mother made sure that low academic expectations did not exist to hold Kyle back.

My role in the Special Ed/General Ed transition, listening to Kyle

One of my current positions is working with a classroom of 4-6th grade students in a self contained special education classroom in the mornings. The only job description I have is to help any of these students in the unit that can access the general education classroom do so.

I am not going to cover any specifics of my class here in the blog, I am going to draw on the hypothetical and my own theories on how this process should work. As always, virtually all my decisions are informed by Kyle’s experiences. If he could do it, then I have to give others the same opportunities. It is the least I can do.

My approach to moving students into mainstreaming is actually informed by my other job in the district. In one school I am working to mainstream students in the self contained classroom. In another school, I am a Kindergarten-3rd grade resource teacher. This means I get to see what level students function at that get to stay in the general education classroom but receive resource services. What I am finding is amazing me. Often times, we see students that have been in special education classes (i.e., self contained) for their whole educational career often are closer to accessing the general education curriculum than students that only receive resource services. Specifically, students in resource can be 1.5-2 years behind their peers academically; whereas students in self contained classrooms can sometimes be at grade level or only 0.5-1 year behind their general education peers. That says to me that those students ~1 year academically behind need resource services, not special classrooms. Anything more is far more restrictive an environment than the students deserve (this is assuming no major behavioral challenges that need overcome-that is a different story entirely, but can often be solved by inclusion in a general education classroom).

Overall, here is my thought process for proceeding and trying to develop a rubric for getting kids out of special education.

  1. I look at the student’s placement scores, irrespective to diagnosis, placement, behavioral history, social skills, etc
  2. When I see a student is academically successful (within ~1-1.5 years of grade level), it means I need to start planning for a paraeducator to assist with any potential behavioral issues in an inclusion setting. Based upon my experience in the resource setting, 1-1.5 years behind grade level is not enough to self-contain a student for academics. So if a student tests within those levels, I can act as a resource teacher for them to provide a reteach, but they need to be out in a general education classroom to receive their core instruction.

  3. I look at the behavioral history of the student.
  4. Now, for me, I usually try to talk with the previous year’s teacher to see what really sticks in their mind, I have seen oftentimes that students will have a lot of things written in their files and put as IEP goals, but those behaviors are not all that prevalent. I then get into data collection mode. I break out my Behavioral First Aid Kit, and start collecting data like crazy. If I see it, I write it down.

  5. I specifically assess any sensory needs
  6. This can be either sensory needs typical to autism populations or sensory integration disorder, but also the need for fidgets in ADHD or just a pen to twiddle or thera-putty to help ease the stress for students that may need it. Anything that can help.

  7. I look at the classroom management and students in classes of general education teachers I may mainstream my students in
  8. I want my kids to succeed. So, I will make sure that my students get access to the teacher with the best management skills and teaching practices possible.

  9. Only now do I dig into the IEP and memorize their psychological/cognitive profile as well as any diagnoses
  10. This just helps inform me how to better process my notes from my data collection steps. It also helps me identify potential issues that I may have overlooked. I do not do this step earlier because I would rather not bias my data collection.

  11. I collect as much data as I can on my student’s performance in the general education classroom
  12. The only difference between this and the earlier data collection step is that I focus on how much support each student needs. Do they need behavioral support? Do they need help with assignments (beyond what their elbow buddy provides)? Do they need a gentle nudge to remain focused. These data I collect daily for 2 weeks, then I fade back to random 10-15 minute data collection period cycled across days weekly and then every other week. But these data collection continue until the student is transitioned out of the unit and into a general education class.

I have adopted this approach because it is both fast and efficient. My goal is to get students into the mainstream as fast as possible because the longer they are in mainstreaming, the more data I can collect and the greater number of strategies I can devise to help them achieve success. Future efforts involve making a formal rubric for releasing students receiving special education into the general education classroom full time.

Turning disadvantages into advantages

A Personal Aside

I have been thinking about communication in autism quite a lot lately (see my Go Fund Me project). I think we often sell people with autism short with regards to their communication and we often do not give them the credit for wanting to communicate with the rest of us. The point I’ll be making is that they do want to communicate, often emphatically, but that their communication might be in a different form than we are used to and we need to work harder at trying to communicate with people with autism.

I also have been thinking about how important it is that we teach children with autism how to type as well as providing speech services and OT for handwriting skills. Being able to type opened life up for my brother like nothing else would have been able to.

To explain my thought process for all of this and how these two disparate thoughts connect, I will go through the story of my late autistic twin brother’s struggles and resounding successes with communication. Hopefully you will also get to know Kyle a little bit better by the end of this post.

So how does a nonverbal autistic child communicate?

I wonder about this question because Kyle and I were partners in crime. And my parents are not sure exactly whose idea most of the nonsense actually was! I threw Cheerios on the green and gold shag carpet in the living room and Kyle stomped them good! Somehow Kyle and I got him put into the wood burning fireplace in the living room and I was smearing him with soot when mom caught us. I also went out to the garden and picked some green watermelons, “accidentally” dropped them to open them, and Kyle and I sat outside at a table with spoons and munched away. How did we coordinate this? I think at some point my mom learned that both Kyle and me giggling probably meant we were up to no good.

That gets to my question: How was Kyle communicating with me? How did we come up with these super-fun plans? I still don’t have an answer.

I remember Kyle learning communication skills at CBTU (now the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism in Salt Lake City) using a felt board, sign language, and verbal speech presented simultaneously. I never truly saw Kyle connect with the felt board. He seemed more interested in words and books/magazines he saw around him. This was important and we should have recognized it earlier. Kyle gave us early signs he loved the written word. When he was being tested to enter CBTU, he was rewarded for good behavior with access to magazines. He would flip through and it was clearly rewarding. When he was told to give the book back, he flipped faster and faster. When it was taken away, he latched on the cheeks of the teacher with true anger. He wanted to see those words. At the time we did not understand how deep Kyle’s connection with words really was.

While Kyle was at CBTU, I distinctly remember picking up little snippets of sign language to help talk to Kyle. I would steal glances at my mother’s sign language books to see if I could learn it. Kyle never really seemed to connect with sign language though. I think it was because it was just plain easier for him to grab my hand and show me what he wanted rather than to try to make me understand through sign language. Kyle also never had patience for people trying to make him say things “right” to get what he wanted or felt he needed. He would just want to get straight to the point. All the way to the end, Kyle did use sign language when it was faster than typing. He asked for someone to help him get a drink or to use the bathroom using sign language. He would say a very lazy “yes” or “no” because it was easier than shaking his head (interesting trivia, when Kyle was mad at me you could hear the snap of his fingers when telling me NO from the next room). In hindsight, it had to be extremely frustrating for Kyle those early years having to try to communicate with us in his wordless world. We just were not understanding him the way he needed us to.

My family literally gave Kyle the gift of speech


When Kyle was 5 years old (this was 1986 for those keeping track) my family took it upon themselves to purchase Kyle what he desperately needed, a machine to let him “talk” to us. They bought him a Touch Talker. It weighed a ton and was super clunky, but it immediately changed his life. I vaguely remember that there was a function for pre-canned phrases (Minspeak) that could be selected based on the pictures on the keyboard. I also remember Kyle didn’t like that very much. He seemed to have either more or more interesting things to say than those programmed phrases would convey. One day when he was 5, the Touch Talker was left on spelling mode and Kyle typed “Iwanttogooutsideplease”. My mom took the initiative to teach him that there are spaces between words. He never turned it back to the Minspeak functions, ever. Never. He just wrote. The words just started to come out. He was only 5! He had only used the Minspeak function for slightly under 3 weeks. He loved words too much. So he started spelling and we (read: mom and dad) nurtured it. He loved typing so much he wore out the keyboard overlays multiple times. In the end, he didn’t need them. He knew where the letters were.

My parents bought Kyle that first Touch Talker while he was at CBTU. He then got a replacement that was not quite so heavy in 3rd grade. This was nice. In 7th grade, Kyle got a laptop, with the thought that he could both talk and do school work with it simultaneously. Kyle was not impressed. He was not able to simply turn it on and immediately start talking. He had to sit and wait, so my family invested in a LINK for Kyle. Now this was lightning fast and light as a feather. This one was Kyle’s favorite and the one he stuck with until he passed away. He got an “upgrade” of his LINK in senior year of high school, but again, it would not turn on fast enough. When Kyle wanted to talk, he wanted to talk, immediately. So he went back to LINK. Even though by this time the “e” was completely worn out and the delete button was dead. It was his voice and he clung to it until the end.


I honestly believe Kyle learning how to type literally changed his life. It allowed him to connect with words. It let him spell. It let him talk to us using his words. It was the pivotal moment in his life that changed it for the better. Even as a little kid I remember Kyle’s hands moving ever quicker along the keyboard as he expressed his thoughts. And even better, Kyle now had a voice. To this day when I think of Kyle I actually hear his humming (much to my chagrin), but his voice is from his LINK and Touch Talker. They were part of him.

Kyle’s communication

My wife said something interesting to me this morning. Upon reflection, she never really noticed that Kyle was nonverbal. This is not a stretch to believe because I have a very quiet father. If there is no reason to talk, then he doesn’t talk. Kyle was the same way. As my mom said this afternoon “[Kyle was] not a man of a lot of words until he wanted something, then he would explode with words and wants.” This is a great description of Kyle. He just went about doing his thing, but if he ever had anything to say, he would make sure you heard it. I remember getting bopped many times by Kyle when I was not paying attention or tried to wander away before he told me everything he had on his mind.

In hindsight, there were times that I forgot Kyle was using a computer to speak for him. I remembered when I realized I had to go into the living room to “hear” Kyle talk to me. If it was really important, he walked out and dragged us in to the living room so he could tell us what he wanted-and he made sure we listened. We always had his touch talker or LINK sitting in the living room. We grew up with a Touch Talker on the end table by the couch. After Kyle got the LINK as an upgrade, it lived on the piano in the living room, and later a table that replaced the piano. One of the coolest features of Kyle’s communication was that he almost talked faster than the rest of us. That is because he typed so fast. His LINK was able to keep talking at a normal speech cadence as he let his thoughts out, it was remarkable.

The most amazing thing about Kyle being able to type at normal speech cadence, was that he only typed using four (occasionally 6) fingers, his two index and two thumbs and when he needed speed he used his two middle fingers. He was completely self-taught and was able to type 130 words per minute (no errors). He also reflexively understood how to spell words. Even medical transcription was not beyond him. He just knew how to spell. He always had.

The more broad thoughts I’ve had lately is how researchers, school districts, teachers, and aides cling to fixed expectations for how people with autism should be “managed”, educated, and in general behave. I’ve always wondered how the CBTU evidence-based methods of using a felt board, sign language, and verbal speech presented simultaneously may have actually delayed speech and communication commonly seen in children growing up in a bilingual household. Kyle, from a very young age, was clearly telling us how to communicate with him, but it seemed like everyone around was focused with a fixed mindset of what’s expected, what’s normal, what has to be, until my parents thought outside the box and purchased Kyle a Touch Talker. This reminds me of the Star Trek, The Next Generation episode, “Loud as a Whisper” where the theme was learning how to turn a disadvantage (Riva who is unable to communicate) into an advantage (Riva is forced to teach sign language to two warring tribes and as a result everyone will hopefully learn to work together). Kyle was teaching us what he needed, we weren’t always willing to learn.

In my experience, individuals are often too quick to presume what is always in the best interest for children with autism. They’re quick to judgement. However, judging a child with special needs doesn’t define who the child is, it defines the person doling out judgement. It would have been all too easy to presume Kyle was stupid, because he didn’t speak. But anyone who made that perverse presumption was dead wrong, as many school teachers found out when they tried to accuse Kyle of cheating in school by letting the aides complete his work. Throughout his life, people tended to talk “at” Kyle and did not so much engage in communication “with” Kyle. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve been guilty of having wrong presumptions about Kyle. Because I’ve made these errors in the past, I’m more sensitive to not allowing my initial impressions or the rumor-mill gossip about a student cloud their true personality. Labels like, “this child can’t talk, he/she must be stupid” only gets in the way of genuine communication. Children with autism are often being very explicit about what they need, much like Kyle was. They are communicating; are we willing to grow and learn from them? Are we really listening?