Out of His Head -What Isn’t Special About Special Education?

What Isn’t Special About Special Education? 

I spent the spring break at Joshua Tree National Park. As cliché as it sounds, the desert has a calming and reflecting effect upon one’s mind. It is like a reset button for thought and awareness. Walking from tree to tree one could see the connectedness of all things trying to survive in the harsh environment. Like our students, no two trees were alike (another cliché). All under the umbrella of Yucca brevifolia, each tree sprouted a different number of branches with a different number of leaves, different angles, and different twists and turns in its branches. But inherently they were connected.

One (a psychologist) can’t help but notice how alike these trees are to the neurons of the brain. The trunks seemed to be axons, the dendrites the leaves and the spaces between the synapses. The desert, a giant brain, keeps life by hosting insects, feeding animals and sharing resources. It all seemed so simple.

What is my point? In preparing for the next school year, the complexities of budgets, staffing, and curriculum didn’t seem so overwhelming in the desert. I was reminded that special education is not that difficult, nor is it different from general education. The only differences lie in the pacing, the group size, modification to language and clinical support provided in each classroom. As you know, we do not use a specific curriculum nor do we have a magic kit to provide educational opportunities. Instead the innate structure of support is what makes the difference.

What is special about special education? 

The unexpected. We have no simple trajectory for our students. I look at numbers all the time to ensure our growth is happening. Reading and Math numbers look great. In fact many students make faster progress than general education students.  But there is never a clear and easy manual for success. We are always adjusting, reevaluating, updating, and changing our methods to best fit the needs of our incredibly diverse population. What needs to be done in the classroom for students with disabilities? We must find effective ways to locate and use the talents and background that special education teachers bring to their classrooms. We have had success with a co-teaching model that involves both the head teacher and assistant teacher working together in the same classroom. In addition our clinicians are tied into the mix. Of course, this means providing planning time, professional development and constant training and evaluation of success. The benefit is that our school develops collaborative faculty teams that have a full understanding of the students’ learning requirements and can meet goals.

We must find ways to ensure that special education is collaborative and just what the name says—“special.”


I started by saying that special education is simple. It is. Individuals with special needs are not simple to understand. The complexities and intensity of their abilities are often difficult to understand and provide for consistently. Every teacher has a student who stares out the window, yet comprehends everything the teacher says. Every teacher works with students that master a skill one day, only to find it has disappeared the next.

Most difficult to understand are changes in behavior as a student develops. Many students hit puberty like a car going into a wall at 100 mph. Others, who have developed tolerances to medication, see dramatic changes in their behavior as well. Younger children as well may see dramatic shifts in their behavior for seemingly unknown reasons.

There are a number of different child behaviors that parents should watch for that may be signs that a child is in distress. Parents who utilize child care are often especially concerned that certain behaviors might be tied to the quality of care issues. Many developmental psychologists agree that when child care is “of high quality, there should be little reason to anticipate negative developmental outcomes.” In fact, there is evidence that high-quality daycare can actually benefit children’s cognitive development more than at-home care alone.

However, it is still important for parents to keep a close eye on their child’s behavior. Early childhood is a time of rapid growth and development, which is why it is essential for children to have the appropriate care and support during this critical period.

The following are a few of the child behavioral warning signs to watch for. If your child begins displaying a sudden change in behavior, it may be time to investigate further and reconsider your current child care situation.

Your Child Becomes Excessively Clingy

While all children need support and reassurance, becoming excessively clingy may be a sign of a problem. If you do notice a sudden change in your child, start noting when and where this behavior seems to occur most often.

Does your child become clingy before and after going to the sitter?

If so, it is important to learn why your child needs additional attention from you during these times. Some separation anxiety may be normal, but an ongoing pattern may indicate that your child is not receiving the care and attention he or she needs from the sitter.

Your Child Cries Inconsolably at the Thought of Being Left With the Sitter

It’s perfectly normal for children to prefer being with their parents.

However, having such a severe negative emotional reaction to one specific individual is a serious red flag. Does your child cry in response to all parental separation, or only in response to this specific sitter? If the problem seems to lie with the sitter, it is time to reevaluate your child care situation.

Your Child Has Frequent Accidents That Result in Cuts and Bruises

A few scratches and scrapes are a normal part of an active, healthy childhood, but a pattern of inexplicable accidents might be a warning sign of poor supervision or even physical abuse. If your child has excessive accidents in the sitter’s care, investigate quickly to determine if further action is necessary.

Your Child Is Not Comfortable Communicating With the Babysitter

Your child should feel at ease and willing to share thoughts, concerns, feelings, and problems with both you and the sitter. If your child has difficulty communicating with the sitter, it may be a sign that your child is not receiving the emotional support and guidance he or she needs.

Your Child Becomes Disobedient or Defiant

Sudden displays of uncharacteristic disobedience or defiance can signify an underlying problem with your child care provider.

In order to maintain stability and consistency, it is essential to develop a behavior plan of action with your child’s caretaker.

A good child care provider will be willing to enforce the rules and disciplinary actions that you set. If misbehavior becomes a problem, it may be a sign that the sitter is not respecting your wishes on issues such as discipline, appropriate social behavior, and character development.

Your Child Exhibits a Noticeable Behavior Change

Sudden or dramatic changes in behavior are perhaps the most alarming warning signs. These behaviors may be displayed at home, among peers or during sleep.

A previously outgoing child may become moody or withdrawn, or an even-tempered child may suddenly begin experiencing bouts of violent anger. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior or sleeping patterns, look into the situation immediately to find a solution or remedy for the problem, and consult professional help from a physician or psychologist.

Lisa DiFalco From Academy Alert Writes… 

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be tough on any child. However, how might adolescence and hormonal stresses affect a child with autism? Educators, families and healthcare professionals need to be aware of the potential of changing needs and demands of such an individual and how it may impact those around them. A typically-developing child can become surly and uncommunicative, but what may be in store with a child with autism or ASD? CNN shared the story of Diane and Alexander Brown and how adolescence has impacted the life and family of a severely autistic teen. Understand more about potential changes, challenges and needs of children with autism as they transition into adulthood. 

Case Study – The Browns

Alexander Brown is a 14 year old boy having difficulty understanding what is happening to him. He finds comfort swaying on a makeshift hammock and Diane Brown, his mother, said:

“I would love to be in Alexander’s head for just a few hours. He’s having a hard time going through puberty right now.”

Alexander has difficulty expressing himself. He now seems sad or angry without understanding why. Currently, he is up at all hours of the night and has begun acting out physically. The parents, other three children and dog all have experienced bite marks, scratches and bruises through interactions with Alexander. Their older child, Connor, also is diagnosed with severe autism and is now cared for at the Tradewinds Residential program.

Aggression is a common behavior seen in some autistic children. It was reported in a study that 68 percent of autistic children had directed aggression toward a caregiver and another 49 percent of autistic children had done so with non-caregivers. Aggression from autistic children can be a factor in:

  • Endangerment to the safety of individuals and family members
  • Parental exhaustion and isolation
  • Increased levels of caregiver stress
  • The decision to have a child placed in a facility or residential center

A great deal is not known about how puberty affects children with autism as there is little research on the topic. While the vast children with autism continue to live in their home, a recent study showed that two percent live in supportive facilities. Alexander, on a good day, is often “the sweetest of boys.” However, he is now taller than Diane and will soon outweigh her. She is unable to control him when he does lash out.

It is seen that boys more often have autism than girls and there is a debate as to whether or not continuing to live at home or living in a more structured facility is the best choice for those children with autism who exhibit levels of aggression that exceed the management abilities of a parent or caregiver. A positive aspect of a more structured living arrangement outside the home is presented by Brad Boardman, executive director at the Morgan Autism Center. Boardman said:

“The reality is that for a lot of autistic kids, normal family life is pretty chaotic. A group home might add a little bit of structure to the equation. It can also be beneficial to families who have got into a negative pattern with a child or are seeing aggressive behavior at home. Sometimes a move into a residential group home can be a way to reset the relationship.”

How puberty will affect an individual child and their family is unique to every situation. Some children with autism show aggressive behaviors at a young age. Other children do not express aggressive tendencies. Tensions of raising a child with autism may impact the marital relationship but research results are mixed on the area of marital breakups. Parents need to seek out ways to relieve stress and find outlets to enable them to restore their energy and engage with others. In Diane’s case, she blogs, performs yoga and has a job at a local café, while also taking care of her family.

New Changes. New Questions.

As with all children going through adolescence, physical changes, cognitive growth and social relationships may all change. New levels of independence may be thrust upon teens with ASD if they go to middle school and must change classes, interact with more teachers and manage assignments and communications with others. Diane Brown’s children are severely autistic but children with milder expressions of autism and ASD may benefit more from guidance as their bodies, minds and social needs change. Adolescents with such conditions can be happy and continue to develop with additional supports.

Adolescents with autism need guidance as they transition to becoming adults. There are many areas to learn more about to better help them but a major focus is to develop their independence. Judith Miller, PHD, training director and clinical director at the Center for Autism Research, discusses adolescence in autism spectrum disorders, recorded at the Next Steps into Adolescence Workshop. One initial consideration is that puberty and maturation occurs on “the same time scale” for children with autism as it does for a typically developing child. In addition, as a group, Miller states that there is clinical evidence and personal experience showing that those with autism are interested in relationships but that in some cases social development “lags behind.” From physical to sexual to cognitive changes, it becomes important to help autistic teens navigate the common challenges experienced during this period and to develop their individual potential.

From severe to mild and high-functioning levels of autism, it takes a community composed of educators, health professionals and family members to provide the structure and appropriate supports to promote a teen with autism’s development and emotional health as they face the challenges of puberty. Adolescence may bring out new undesirable changes such as aggressive behaviors or positive changes such as a growth in cognitive functioning, awareness of self and of others. More resources and research are necessary to improve understanding and provide tools to case managers, caregivers, families and health professionals.

What to do if you see behavior changes:

  1. Do not dismiss. We would like to say, this behavior is because he ate spicy food, or his tantrum was due to a bad night’s sleep. However, persistent changes in behavior do not often have obvious reasons. Any behavioral change that interferes with daily functioning should be taken seriously.
  2. Consult your pediatrician, psychologist, or psychiatrist. A professional should be alerted for any changes in a child’s behavior. Don’t try and figure things out for yourself.
  3. Talk to the school. It is not possible to work with any student without clear and consistent communication with the school. Any modifications necessary to keep a student safe and productive need monitoring. A school needs to know what is happening at home and vice versus. Communication is essential in all cases.

Food For Thought 2018

Thanks to everyone who attended Cooke’s Food For Thought gala on May 2.
Through your support, we took a great leap forward for children with special needs which will make a tremendous difference in the lives of Cooke students – THANK YOU!

Click here for photos from Food For Thought 2018: (more photos to come!)