Minneapolis student with autism fears schools will shortchange kids like him

Arie Copley-Radder (front) spends upwards of 80 percent of his time in a regular classroom, but he credits the Citywide Autism Program for his success.

Arie Copley-Radder (front) spends upwards of 80 percent of his time in a regular classroom, but he credits the Citywide Autism Program for his success.

Arie Copley-Radder had a hell of a time adjusting to preschool. His first days in the classroom were an overwhelming blur of new faces, loud voices and bright lights. Confused and agitated, he’d start flipping desks. He’d bite and scratch the teacher. The other children were afraid of him.

Arie, who was enrolled in the Citywide Autism Program at Lake Nokomis Community School, would get pulled out of class at least once a day. His retreat was a separate room where autism specialists and aids exposed him gradually to the sights and sounds of public school. They taught him calming techniques and social cues to help him focus on his regular teacher’s instructions. On his specially scheduled breaks, he’d go to the gym and ride a bike or bounce on a trampoline.

Year after year, Arie’s dependence on the autism program decreased. By the third grade, he had the skills he needed to sail free in a general ed classroom. Now 13 years old, Arie completes his homework and earns passing marks without extra help from special education aids.

He owes his success to the intense care he received in his early years. “I probably wouldn’t be able to function as well as I could right now if it weren’t for the autism program,” Arie says. “I don’t really use it as much anymore, but when I was younger I really did need it. I needed another room to chill out.”

The boy said as much at a June Minneapolis Public Schools board meeting in response to changes coming to the Citywide Autism Program.

Whereas Minneapolis used to cluster autism specialists and classrooms in certain schools, the district recently announced that starting this fall, resources will be spread more evenly across all buildings. Autism classrooms for Burroughs, Folwell and Jenny Lind kindergarteners will close for good. The program would no longer enroll incoming kindergarteners with levels 1 and 2 autism – those who are recommended to spend the majority of their time in general ed classrooms.

“It’s the right of our students to receive their special education services in the least restrictive environment in the school they would attend if they weren’t disabled,” says Amy Johnson, the director of special education. The district must offer individualized support for all students in their immediate communities – they shouldn’t have to travel to concentrated programs scattered throughout the city.

A total of 23 kindergarteners will start the 2015-2016 academic year in their neighborhood schools, where they will continue to receive all the support that their individualized education plans call for, Johnson says. Students who need aids at their side and regular breaks will receive them. Those who require occupational therapy to build their speech and social skills will get it. The parents of the 23 have all agreed to let neighborhood schools provide for their children’s needs.

The district’s loudest critics are not the parents of incoming kindergarteners. They’re the parents of students currently enrolled in the Citywide Autism Program, who have learned through years of trial and error that kids with autism can become steadily more independent with robust support in their early grades.

Organized under the banner of ChARM, Children’s Autism Rights Mpls, these parents fear scattering kids with autism in schools where few others understand their struggle would make them ripe targets for bullying. They say without designated rooms for students to cool off in case they have meltdowns, they will be deprived of an essential safety net. They were baffled to discover that with less than a month before school starts on August 26, general education teachers, autism teachers and their aids throughout the district had no idea these changes were about to take place. 

It was only after haranguing special education directors, speaking up at school board meetings, collecting a petition of more than 5,600 signatures, and complaining to the media that ChARM finally got the district’s attention. Special education executive director Rochelle Cox confirmed details of the district’s plans in an email sent to parents last Thursday.

“That’s the most frustrating thing, they didn’t tell us anything,” says one autism teacher who asked that we not use her name to protect her job. General special education teachers expected to pick up much of the slack in neighborhood schools have not yet received additional training to support kids with autism, she says. The district will eventually hire three itinerant autism teachers to oversee programming at neighborhood schools, but those hires are not required to have autism teaching experience.

In hindsight, district officials admit they should have been more transparent with teachers, parents and principals. Yet they believe some of the stakeholders’ concerns are overblown. The majority of Minneapolis schools already provide services to students with autism, so new training is not necessary, says Sara Stack of the special education department.

“If schools need additional training, that is something we will certainly provide,” she says. The district will decide based on the individual needs of the students enrolled at each school.

Local pediatrician Lois Hall isn’t sold. “You don’t take kids on the autism spectrum and put them in a school without the adequate support,” she says. “There’s nothing I would like more than to have our autism spectrum disorder students integrated with other kids, but that requires appropriate professional development and support systems, and these guys are flying by the seat of their pants.”

There’s a sense within the district, Hall says, that because the changes will only affect 23 kindergarteners, it’s not a big deal.

“If you are one of the 23 with something as significant as autism spectrum disorder and you get off on the wrong foot, you don’t get launched in your grade school correctly, that would ruin a child’s life,” she says. 

Marcia Haugstad, the mother of a rising 9th grader at Washburn, recalls backpedaling on her decision to send her son to their neighborhood school when he first entered kindergarten. At the time, she and her husband insisted that Hale provide their child with autism support.

“It was woefully inadequate,” Haugstad says. “There was not someone who was trained specifically on the spectrum and therefore aware of the various interventions that work, no separate place for him to go to for sensory breaks. Most importantly, there was not enough support for him in the classroom on a consistent basis.”

Once, Haugstad’s son slipped past his kindergarten teacher and fled the school. Luckily, a staff member standing at a second floor window caught sight of him before he could wander into a busy street. The kindergarten teacher was well-meaning, Haugstad says, but she was minding 25 other children with no special education assistant to help.

Afterward, she enrolled her son in the Citywide Autism Program at Wenonah, where he flourished under an administrator and teachers who understood autism and embraced it.

Haddayr Copley-Woods, Arie’s mother, looks at her son today with brimming pride. For all the district’s talk of levels that would be better suited for integration than others, of “mild” versus “severe” autism, Arie is proof that the spectrum doesn’t break down in such simple terms, she says.

“Arie is deeply intelligent and he cares about doing well,” Copley-Woods says. “He’s level 1, but he used to flip desks and attack his teacher. She’d have to drag him out of the room. And they’re acting like the level 1 kids are just the lovable nerds who just need some help with their social skills? You needed some pretty serious stuff at the beginning, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Arie agrees, “but now I am what you just said though.”