Can My ‘On the Spectrum’ Son Stay in a Mainstream School?

Q: My nine-year-old son has been diagnosed as “being on the spectrum” of PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), possibly exhibiting behavior of Asperger’s syndrome. When researching Asperger’s, I found mention of behaviors such as “hand flapping,” clumsiness and lack of give-and-take in relationships. But those descriptions do not describe my son. I admit that at times he can become very excited and be unaware of how others view his reactions. However, he cares about the feelings of others, and has friends both in class and outside school.

My son’s school is starting to question whether it is advisable for him to remain in his class. We have had tutors for him from a program catering to children with PDD. However, they mainly concentrate on improving focus and academic performance. A school counselor this year was trying to work with my son on his social issues, but his rebbi didn’t want him to miss class. Rather than emerging as a helpful tool, this intervention spiraled downward into a power struggle between teacher and therapist.

His school has no group therapy available for students like him and is now suggesting that he go to a school that focuses on social issues. I want my son to remain in a mainstream school. (I recall seeing a video about autistic children doing better in a mainstream class.) My son is not even autistic, and I feel strongly that transferring to a special-ed school will not help his problem.

A: Working on improving social skills can be a difficult task, especially if a school does not focus on this issue. Most schools (in any society) emphasize academic achievement and desire their student body to be more “mainstream,” due to the lack of time and resources available on any given school day. Every school has a certain curriculum it needs to cover, besides training new teachers and dealing with discipline problems. Thus, even the simple inclusion of behavior modification charts for individual students can be an overwhelming task for certain teachers. In such cases, our desire to have teachers focus on a child’s particular needs may be idealistic but unrealistic.

The most practical thing for you to do is find out what are the school’s specific complaints about your son, and work on these issues. The therapist, who is not being “allowed” to work with your son during class time, can see him in his or her office outside of school hours.

Schedule a weekly discussion with your son’s academic tutors to discuss his social behavior; for example, how does he initiate conversation and respond to others? The therapist will need this information in order to help your son with issues that he may not be able to articulate.

It would be a good idea for you to visit the special-ed school that is being recommended so that you can observe its student population and get an idea about its approach. If, after this, you still believe the special-ed school would be inappropriate for your son, be specific about your reasons. For example, if you feel that the general developmental level of the students is much lower than that of your son, provide examples of what you actually saw in the school setting.

Your son must be willing to work on these issues and recognize the importance of doing so. Often “cerebral” children (and adults) de-emphasize the need to work on social issues, which is very detrimental to improvement in this area.