Last week’s Washington Post told the shocking story of two “certified childcare workers” who physically and verbally abused an 8-year old Florida boy with autism. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/09/22/video-shows-florida-child-care-workers-taunting-throwing-objects-at-8-year-old-autistic-boy/?utm_term=.499437d74451&wpisrc=nl_most&wpmm=1 Whatever training these young women received was clearly insufficient. Shouldn’t there have been some supervision of these newly minted childcare workers, given that they’d just received certification in August 2017? Not only was there no oversight of these inexperienced workers, but their criminal actions might have continued or even escalated –had they not posted a video of themselves on social media! (How horrifying to think trusted caretakers of unusually vulnerable children were actually proud of bullying their charges. Or perhaps they thought the video clip would AMUSE people?) In addition to being fired and having their licenses revoked, both women in the video have been charged with child abuse and battery; as of this writing, they have yet to be apprehended.
There are a number of solutions to the problem of finding qualified and empathetic workers for kids with autism, (who are often far more challenging to their caretakers than their neurotypical peers). Obviously, providing better education and training, in addition to greater oversight of new teachers and childcare workers is imperative. Higher wages would probably greatly improve the situation for all involved. But given our current political situation, with an education Secretary who devalues disabled children, none of these solutions is likely.
I have a different idea. Some readers may call me crazy, but I think we should train and employ capable adults on the spectrum who are interested in childcare. My daughter Samantha worked as a volunteer with young kids on the spectrum for several summers. She knows—from her own school experiences—how it feels to struggle socially and academically, and she knows what works best to calm a child who melts down. Samantha had plenty of meltdowns in her day, so her empathy and understanding are built in. She particularly loves young, special needs kids and calls them “cutie patooties.” While Samantha would certainly need training and supervision, no one is kinder, more patient and upbeat than my daughter. Employing adults on the spectrum to care for children with autism may sound counter-intuitive, but think of all the unemployed young adults who would be delighted to have meaningful work at low wages (instead of no work and no pay).
I know there are plenty of arguments against hiring people like my daughter for childcare. Here they come: an assistant teacher with autism may make the head teacher’s job more difficult; a childcare worker on the spectrum might not function well in an emergency or where a quick decision is necessary; parents of special needs kids might feel uneasy trusting an adult with autism and may wonder if adults with autism are capable of being good role models. These are all valid points, but they are not persuasive enough for me to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No caretaker is perfect, but the two women who videoed their abuse session have shown how low the bar can be set for autism childcare.
Samantha and her child-loving friends on the spectrum would NEVER bully or throw a backpack at a child on the spectrum (or ANY child!) as the two “neurotypical” childcare workers did in Florida. Samantha always diligently followed whatever instructions were given to deal with challenging behaviors. The patience required to work with young children on the spectrum comes easily to my daughter. During one of her summer internships, Samantha was proud of herself for convincing a frustrated little boy to persevere through a math problem. He called her Princess Samantha (instead of Miss Samantha). As the beneficiary of years of empathic encouragement while working through a variety of academic and social struggles, Samantha has experienced a variety of teachers and approaches; she remembers who (and what) helped her (and who didn’t).
Samantha suffered through several neurotypical teachers with so-called master’s degrees, who—while not physically abusive—were unable to calm her down or teach her simple math and reading. Some of these teachers made spelling and punctuation mistakes themselves. During those years, I would have greatly preferred an assistant teacher or intern on the autism spectrum who would be patient and effective with my daughter. Particularly in the early years, it was vital to surround my daughter with warm, upbeat adults who encouraged her to persevere through ongoing frustrations and difficulties. In many ways, the best teachers for kids with autism are outgoing and positive, with a cheerleader’s personality. (Hmm… that sounds an awful lot like my daughter).
Furthermore, as an autism mom, I would have found it inspiring and hopeful to see an adult with autism who was sufficiently competent to assist in the classroom. Not only would this offer hope to autism families that their children can succeed, but an assistant on the spectrum could provide a head teacher with invaluable insights into the autistic child’s perspective. While adults on the spectrum might not be capable of planning a curriculum, multi-tasking in the moment, or dealing with a complex crisis, my daughter could bring joy, gratitude and kindness to a special needs childcare job—qualities which appear to be in short supply and high demand these days.