Tuesday, March 29, 2016

To Treat or Embrace

To Treat or Embrace

Two very different articles were in newspapers lately.  One article in the New York Times told the story of a fifty-year old man who participated in an experiment called transcranial magnetic stimulation or T.M.S.  The purpose of the non-invasive treatment is to change activity in a particular part of a person with autism’s brain so that he/she can sense emotions.   The common wisdom is that people who are on the autism spectrum do not experience much emotion themselves and have difficulty feeling empathy with the emotions of others.  The article is about a man who received the T.M.S. treatment and commented the very “next morning when I went to work, everything was different.  Emotions came at me from all directions, so fast that I didn’t have a moment to process them.”   He further reports that seeing emotions didn’t improve his life, in fact in some ways made it worse.  He now “realized” that people he remembered as funny were actually making fun of him.  He believed that customers at his job were looking at him with contempt.  He goes on to say eventually he lost his marriage.  It seems that his wife was chronically depressed but before the treatment he just accepted her “quiet sadness”, after the treatment they did not need each other any more.  According to the article it took over five years for him to become accommodated to his newfound ability.  The article ends with this quote, “becoming ‘typical’ proved to be the thing that was truly crippling for me.  Now I realize that my differences make me who I am- success and failure alike.”
I have multiple questions about both the article and the experiment.  I have a very hard time believing that everything switched overnight with one experiment.   It is also confusing to me why so many of the newfound emotions were now negative.  Funny people were making fun of him.  Customers viewed him with contempt.  He is married again and his second wife has worked to unite his former family with his present one.   It seems he is still having someone else manage his emotions.

Another article in Southern Maryland News describes a young man with autism and Tourette syndrome.  He is an English major at the College of Southern Maryland in Prince George’s County.   He has made the dean’s list three times.  The autism creates difficulty for him to connect with others.  Tourette syndrome causes verbal and motor tics.  James Walls graduated from The Harbour School at Annapolis.  When asked about his disability he just responds, “It’s part of who I am, I’ve kind of learned to accept it, embrace it, like I have my autism.” James is doing just fine being who he is.  

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is estimating that 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with autism.  When James was a student at Harbour, he had friends and socialized well.  Just like the rest of us, James’ friends were a lot like James.   That old saw about “birds of a feather” is really quite true as each of us examines our own friends.
So for autism, or any disability/charactieristic for that matter, fight it or embrace it.  Maybe it all comes down to loving who we are and hope that some others will as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Silent Killer

A Silent Killer
Something is taking the lives of people with autism.  It is not heart disease, stroke or cancer.   Yet it is taking lives 12-30 years earlier than might be expected.   It is suicide.
The main killers in the general population are the expected diseases mentioned above.  But when it comes to adults with autism, these expectations do not apply.  A recent article in the Journal of Psychiatry reports that the leading cause of death among adults with autism is suicide.  Researchers studied 27,000 adults with the disorder and 2.5 million people without the disorder.  Based on data in the Sweden’s national registry, on average, adults with autism die 18 years sooner than those without autism.
Those on the spectrum with the old diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome had double the risk of dying young than did others on the spectrum.  The overall trends were similar for both genders. 
Researchers believe these new data confirm a true scale of the hidden mortality of the disorder.  Many of these suicides occur before individuals reach their 40th birthdays.  Naturally, researchers wanted to know why.
There are many correlations between autism and other disorders.  And there are also some natural manifestations of the disorder.  In the Swedish analysis co-morbidity existed between autism, epilepsy, mood disorder and anxiety disorder in 40% of the cases reviewed.  As a result individuals with autism frequently take more prescriptive drugs than the typical population.  Additionally, the disorder itself is known for a certain amount of rigidity.   Eating patterns may be limited and there is social isolation common among most people who commit suicide. 
The data also show that adults with autism and a learning disability are over nine times more likely to commit suicide.  This rate is extremely high but not inconsistent with previous research that estimates 30 to 50 percent of people with autism have considered committing suicide.
Early research seems to indicate that these issues begin in childhood with feelings that show a great lack of self worth and that 14% of these children think about suicide, while only .5 % of typically developing children do.   The Center for Disease Control in the U.S. estimated in 2014 that 1 in 68 children have the disorder.

If we are thinking this is a health issue that begins in childhood with a lack of self worth, maybe we need to be re-thinking all of this inclusion of these youngsters with other kids who are not ready to manage the disorder among their peers.  And then there are the chronological peers who do not know how to respond or befriend children with autism.   It is not always a wonderful thing to be included with people you perceive as being "better" than you are in some way.  Things to think about.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Something is out of whack here

Something is VERY out of Whack

A teacher in Baltimore City middle school is trying to raise $450 for two new laptops for her class.  Given the cost for two of these devices, they are clearly not very powerful.  She has applied to a website, DonorsChoose.org in the hopes of securing the money.  The teacher was very fortunate because former Baltimore Raven football star, Torrey Smith had funded every request submitted by teachers on the east side of the City.  Carmelo Anthony a forward for the New York Knicks who graduated from Towson Catholic in Baltimore County, funded all the teacher requests from the west side of the City.  All told, these athletes donated $500,000 to help 720 teachers.  That is an average of just under $700 per teacher.  Don’t misunderstand me; these were very generous acts by these multi-millionaires.  Teachers received funds for school supplies, new classroom chairs, and some STEM themed learning activities.  The vast majority (94%) of the children who benefited qualifies for free or reduced priced lunches.
Teachers have noted that the City is cash strapped so it cannot afford these things for the children.   REALLY!
Is this the same school district that brags it is paying some teachers over $100,000 a year for a 187-day work year?  The rest of us work around 240 days a year, subtracting for a 2-week vacation and 14 paid holidays.  Yet teachers are going looking for basic supplies to teach their classes.  Teachers should be well paid for what they do but not at the expense of the children.  In the current budget process teachers are paid what the union has negotiated and the kids get what is left over.
We have school systems spending almost a million dollars on outside legal fees to keep kids from having an appropriate education outside the system.  School districts outfit athletic teams and maintain athletic fields but teachers need to beg for chairs that are not broken and school supplies?   What is wrong with this picture!

What is wrong is fairly simple.  Our priorities are flipped on their ears.  What would happen if we provided school supplies, instructional materials, technology and experiential learning based on kids' needs?  What would happen if we spruced up schools, painted them and cleaned them.  Then we looked at what was available for teachers.  Oh and while we are at it, can we make sure those folks receiving the 100K for their 187 day school year are actually earning that money.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Money or Kids- which matters

Money or Kids?  Your choice

A Maryland school district known for its wealth and excellent school system has just produced a report showing how much money it has saved by investing almost a million dollars in what it calls the “expert legal services” model.  The translation for this is that the system does not use in-house counsel; instead it hires outsiders who are expert at winning cases against families with children with disabilities.  Now that is something to be proud of!

Howard County Public Schools has projected that by using the outside counsel it could save 2.88 million dollars in tuition and transportation over the next several years.   For FY ’15 the school system saved $493,029 in tuition and transportation at a cost of $825,000 in outside legal fees.  So it is clear the real savings mount up over several years not in the year the money was spent for the outside counsel.  The report is three pages long, not including the title page.  Nowhere in the three pages of charts and text is there any mentioning whatsoever of benefit to children.  It is also not noted that the bulk of this money is going to one law practice that is known for the way it attacks parents at mediation and due process hearings.  The lead attorney of the firm routinely brings parents to tears and brags about how many times he has whipped the families.  School personnel actually threaten families that if they do not back off advocacy for their own children, they will have to go against the Board’s attorney. And you KNOW how tough he is! Families are reminded of how hard an emotional experience that will be.  The attorney is known for his tactics of subpoenaing every record of the parents and school.  These are hearings to determine an appropriate educational program for a kid with a disability; they are not trials of serial killers.

This is a school system. This is not corporate America where success is measured in stock prices and monetary gains.  This organization is supposed to be about the well being of children.   The residents of this system are above average in income and education levels.  Spokespeople for the district routinely brag about what a great school system it is and how every one loves it.  One question that I have is, if the school system is so great for kids with disabilities why does it have to spend almost one million dollars to keep kids within the system rather than pay a lesser amount in tuition for an outside the system placement. 

There is no mention of any money spent to investigate the parents’ claims of the inappropriateness of the program for their child.  Nor is there any discussion of the cost to the child and the child’s family for the child to be in an inappropriate educational program.

No this report to the Board of Education is all about a cost benefit analysis.  I would like a report on the cost to the kids and the benefits to the law firm that is reaping all this money.   Now that would be a cost-benefit analysis of a different ilk. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"They" live among us. Do we know "Them"?

Sometimes Religion and School should mix

Religion should be separated from our government.   Our students should be taught about religion in our schools.  I strongly support both of these statements.  And they are not inconsistent with each other.
Religion should never be a test of who can hold office, vote in an election or any other government function.  Although there are some states that do not allow atheists to hold office.   I am waiting for a legal challenge to that position.
Our country is becoming increasingly diverse regarding ethnicity, religion and race.  That situation has the potential to incredibly enrich our society.  It also has the potential to allow ignorance of each other to foster more discrimination and even violence.  As always the sworn enemy of ignorance is education.
Our schools already teach about events that are based in religion.  We teach about the Reformation and the Scopes Monkey Trial.  We teach about WWII and the evolution of anti-Semitism.  Our students see women on the street with covered heads or bodies and some ask why, what is wrong with them.  We need to answer.  The media can portray Christianity as being represented by the Westboro group that protests at the funerals of American service members.  Do we paint all Christians with this brush?  But Christianity is, at present, a majority faith so we know that these actions are not representative of Christianity. 
The media would have us believe that Muslims are carrying out terrorist attacks all over our country.  When in fact most of the mass shootings have been committed by non-Muslims.  At this time Islam is a minority faith so most of our students do not know that these behaviors are not representative and that Islam is a peaceful faith as is Christianity and Judaism.
Americans must learn about each other. And what better place is there to do this than in our schools?  America has from the beginning been a beacon of light to those who are seeking a better life.  But if we are all going to live together, and there are few options, then we must know about each other.  Our schools have as their first commandment in a democracy to create an educated electorate.  We cannot meet that responsibility if we do not know about the “they” who live among us.