Guess Who's Coming to Math Class?

The parents of Elliot Bennett, like the parents of many autistic children, want their child in a regular classroom. Inclusion's the trend -- and a federal mandate. But most schools aren't ready to make room.

Dark-haired and soft-faced, Elliot Bennett's "a noodle" -- so affectionate and sweet, the other kids at Bristol (a public grade school in Webster Groves) fight over who gets to sit with him at lunch. Elliot doesn't much care; he likes the routine of third grade and finds his schoolmates' familiar faces as comforting as the chocolate milk. But whenever the cafeteria chatter confuses him, or the steamy smells and bright lights become overwhelming, he slips like a scuba diver into a cool dark world that's all his own.

Because he's autistic, Elliot's not as verbal as the other kids, and sometimes he hums or jabbers during quiet time. Used to it, his classmates don't even look up. But if he wanders, pulled by invisible strings of distraction, they steer him back to his desk ("C'mon, Ellie") or nudge him into line. They know he loves P.E., the whirl of energy, the steady supporting hand of the coach -- but all that sweaty thudding activity makes structured concentration even harder. So another student usually offers to replace the panting teacher's aide as Elliot's partner, holding his feet for sit-ups.

This, in education-speak, is "inclusion." Elliot only leaves Mrs. Faulkner's room to do special drills and work on language, whose rules came to him like turtles through molasses. Otherwise, he's in class with kids his age who live in his neighborhood, not closeted with a small, silent group of autistic kids. He's learned to ride a bike, add numbers, make choices, follow along. There are small hurts -- at the start of the year, everybody else got a big worm to color, and now they're doing a research project on the states, and Elliot has to go do his drills instead. But at math-circle time, his teacher asks him questions along with everybody else, smoothly altering the level of abstraction without a pause. When Elliot answers, promptly and correctly, one of his classmates nods with satisfaction.

The other students are determined to win a response from this unfathomable classmate -- a boy who's quick to give hugs but rarely starts a conversation; who's as gentle as a rabbit but seems achingly alone; who stacks his books with precision but feels the chaos inside. Elliot's wide open to the whole world -- as though somebody sanded the protective coating off every nerve ending and left him nowhere to hide. You'd think the other kids would attack like sharks. Instead, quick when nobody's looking, a little girl kisses his cheek. Others routinely ask him practice questions, monitoring his progress like tiny therapists.

They help Elliot so readily, in fact, that his real speech therapist decided she'd better give a talk about "enabling." His mom, Gayle Bennett, was fine with that; she and Elliot had given talks together back in kindergarten and first grade, so the other kids could understand him better. Maybe this time he could demonstrate some of his drills, show them what he can do. Interested, Gayle sat in on the talk. And came home in tears.

"There was this big word on the board, 6 feet by 2 feet: DISABILITY. Then she said, 'Does anybody know this word? Everybody say, "DISABILITY." Who in this classroom has a DISABILITY?' They all raised their hands and pointed to Elliot. And he just sat there, like a trophy, while she talked about him. She wasn't going to include him at all."

This therapist -- a Special School District "inclusion facilitator" -- has helped the Bennetts greatly in the past, and they're quick to admit that "she's one of the best." But that day, engulfed by maternal fury, Gayle vowed to "make her feel what Elliot felt. After the talk, she went up to the therapist, who was pregnant, and blurted, "How are your HEMORRHOIDS? Are they purple? Do they itch? Are they warm?" She sighs. "It's not the words -- I would have said he had a disability called autism, too. But I wouldn't have spent half-an-hour on it. All we see in this society are the differences. If this had been these kids' first impression of Elliot, they would have thought of him as 'Elliot, the kid with the disability.'"

Fortunately, these kids have known Elliot for two years. "We could paint his face purple and they'd still love him," Gayle remarks, her voice lightening. "They're smarter than us. They have done inclusion."

Inclusion is the most complicated challenge to hit the school system yet, and autism -- the most mysterious and misunderstood disability -- has become its acid test. How do you "mainstream" a child who can't communicate how much he knows; has trouble meeting your eyes; goes rigid or runs away from any social expectation; hears every bell and buzzer as a painful red scream slicing the world in half? Autism's characteristic symptoms interrupt the very process of socialization, and its separateness blocks the lockstep conformity on which educational institutions rely.

Of course, Elliot's not the movie-of-the-week autistic child, scripted for hostile indifference, mutely rocking and frenziedly head-banging until a loving teacher breaks through the wall. But that child's a myth anyway. No two cases of autism are alike. The formal diagnosis spans mysterious problems with relationship; language (both speaking and understanding); stuck-in-concrete thought processes; distorted sensory responses and inexplicable movements (often compulsive spinning or hand-flapping). Temple Grandin, the famous autistic livestock-facility designer who's earned a doctorate and written books about her experience, describes the continuum as running "from somebody who's low-functioning, nonverbal with epilepsy and immature brain development, to somebody with moderate autism to somebody like me, to Asperger's syndrome, autistic tendencies or pervasive developmental disorder -- and go a little past that and you get Bill Gates. Or my grandfather, who invented the automatic pilot."

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