I taught students with autism.
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Dr. Michael Rutter, a child psychiatrist whose studies included one that demonstrated the genetics of autism, died last week at the age of 88.
His obit can be found here.
I was interested in reading about Dr. Rutter because as a public school art teacher I taught many children with autism, mostly in a fully inclusive setting.
I taught every student in the school and everybody got all mixed in together.
Some came with an adult assistant. Some did not.
Autism has long been a subject of controversy and misinformation.
Before I began teaching in the 1980s, there was still thinking that blamed it on emotionally distant parents. Mothers in particular were blamed. They were called refrigerator moms.
Dr. Rutter dismissed this argument, explaining that childhood development exists in a social environment with multiple connections and separations that impact them positively and negatively.
One of Dr. Rutter’s important contributions to our understanding of autism was to remove it from the domain of psychoanalysis.
“He really created modern child psychiatry by insisting on using data to drive thinking about diagnosis and treatment,” Bennett Leventhal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a phone interview. “If you go back to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the focus of psychiatry came out of psychoanalysis, which was built largely on case vignettes. That’s not bad — it’s what we had — but Rutter said we can do better.”
My first years of teaching in the 1980s corresponded to the emergence of the anti-vaxxer movement.
There were those that gave more credibility to media personalities like Jenny McCarthy and the late shock jock Don Imus than scientific evidence. The anti-vaxxers argued that childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella caused autism.
I’m thinking about Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who claims not be an anti-vaxxer but certainly is one.
Dr. Rutter took them on.
The medical evidence for the value of vaccines is overwhelming, whether it is combatting childhood measles or Covid19.
I also recall times when I had to take on the self-proclaimed experts on autism in my teaching because they lacked overwhelming evidence or data.
For example, at the start of each year I was handed a list of our students with autism. I was to check off which of these students should start the year fully included with their classmates or segregated to their own art class.
I always checked fully included.
This identified me to the Special Education administrators as an inclusion zealot.
Their stated policy was to make the decision based on the individual needs of the student. That sounded reasonable. In practice it inevitably resulted in segregation. They could always find a reason why it was better to segregate students they said had special needs than to include them.
It was certainly easier.
Inclusion was harder. For the district it was more expensive.
But I believed my position was reasonable and data driven.
I wanted to start the year assuming every student could learn in an inclusive classroom and if we needed to make adjustments over the school year, we could schedule time to do that.
I won that fight primarily because it was Art and not worth the aggravation for them.
The last year I taught, I was the subject of a classroom observation by my principal whose background had been in Special Education.
The observation was to be part of my work review, my evaluation.
An evaluation was required even though it was my final year of teaching.
The class my principal was observing had a young 5th grade boy who was identified as low functioning autism, an identification I detested as demeaning and dehumanizing.
In my post-observation review the principal criticized me because this student had spent the entire time of my presentation to the class staring out the window.
My principal was critical. I had not responded to the boy’s lack of attention.
I explained that I had known this boy for five years, not for forty-five minutes. The principal, on the other hand, had no idea whether he was attending to what I had been saying. Nor did I find that very important. What I thought was important was that he was in an art-making environment with other typical students also engaged in making art. I was convinced learning was going on.
Her criticism remained in my evaluation.
It is probably still there.