Eagle Hill School’s graduation speech delivered by Dr. Edward M. Hallowell

Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, a former instructor at the Harvard Medical School, one of the foremost experts on ADHD in the world, and the founder of the Hallowell Center for Emotional and Cognitive Health, was invited by the Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, Massachusetts to deliver this year’s graduation speech. (March 2, 2011 – Eagle Hill School does not have the speech posted to their website anymore, but you can read the text on Dr. Hallowell’s web site, and you can watch the video on vimeo.)

According to the school’s web site “Eagle Hill School is a private co-educational college preparatory boarding school for students with learning disabilities in grades 8-12. Specific learning differences include: Dyslexia, Language Based Learning Disability, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Nonverbal Learning Disability. [...] Eagle Hill School is the preeminent private high school for students with learning disabilities and ADHD who demonstrate average to above average cognitive ability.”

If I read the information on the web site correctly, the school serves 150 students. Their tuition is $51,692 (day tuition is $36,586).

In addition, from early July through early August, Eagle Hill runs a five-week academic and recreational summer camp for students ages 10-18 who have been diagnosed with specific learning (dis)abilities and/or Attention Deficit Disorder. The tuition for the summer camp is $6,888.

Bartlesville, OK – Gifted/Talented Committee members fail to show up for meeting

I found the following story quite amusing – A Bartlesville Public Schools Gifted and Talented Local Advisory Committee meeting […] didn’t take place because the only person who showed up was Vicki Walker, BPS director of special services. (see Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise “Gifted/Talented Committee members fail to show up for meeting,”)

Interestingly, according to the Bartlesville Public Schools’ web page titled “Gifted and Talented Education,” the number of BPS students qualifying for the gifted and talented program is far above the state average of 12.8 percent, in Bartlesville Public Schools, 17.2 percent of students qualify. On average the district serves approximately 1,300 students annually in the program.” I wonder what their criteria for admission into the program are. It seems they count everyone who’s taking the Advanced Placement classes.

Of course it’s important to know that Oklahoma is one of eight states where gifted programming is not only mandated (identification begins in first grade) but also funded by state (in 2004-2005, the state allocated $42,200,030 for Gifted and Talented programming). (Davidson Institute’s GT-CyberSource, Oklahoma’s Gifted Education Policies page)

What I find curious is that according to the web page titled “Bartlesville Public Schools’ success in Special Education,” the district has only 727 students (less than 10% of their student population) currently enrolled in Special Education Services (much fewer than the students in the gifted programs), while in 2004-2005 the state’s average was 13.79%. (according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Special Education Services information) I wonder what the reason for these discrepancies is.

By the way, I really liked the Oklahoma’s “Special Education Parent Handbook,” especially the “Questions to be Answered during the Multidisciplinary Evaluation Eligibility and Team Summary (MEETS)/IEP Meeting” form on pages 12 and 13 (18 and 19 of the pdf document), “My Personal Directory” form on page 15 (21 of the pdf), and sample IEP form on pages 19 through 25 (25 through 31 of the pdf). I need to bring that to our next IEP meeting.

What do you say to a kid who’s rolling around, punching, biting, kicking? (the story of Gabriel Ross)

It seems Alex Barton is not the only five-year-old verbally abused by his teacher.

While Gabriel Ross has not been voted out of his classroom, he also heard his peers being forced to say they don’t want to be his friends, and he heard much worse things from his teacher .

I first found Gabriel’s story on MND–mensnewsdaily.com in a June 5, 2008 editorial “Kindergarten Cruelty: Not Child’s Play” by Joanne Jacobs.

It seems the story has been first reported on May 25, 2008 by News and Tribune in an article “Tape reveals teacher’s verbal abuse” by Tara Hettinger and was picked up by ABC News a couple days later. (see “Teacher Caught on Tape: Kindergartner ‘Ignorant, Pathetic, Self-Absorbed’” by Jonann Brady from May 27, 2008 and the interview posted on that page)

Gabriel’s story, which broke just about the same time as Alex Barton’s, had some additional coverage but very little in comparison with Alex’s story. I suppose that might be because Gabriel has not been identified as autistic or ADHD, so unlike Alex, he and his parents do not receive hundreds of letters of support from all over the world.

Gabriel’s parents don’t see any difficult behaviors at home, but at school things seem to have been a bit different. Yet even though his teacher, Kristen Woodward, suggested creating a behavioral plan for Gabriel early in the school year, apparently she chose to do nothing about that in the end. Instead, she chose to be mean to him and call him “stupid,” “pathetic” and “ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing.”

Ironically, on the tape, she’s the one chastising Gabriel about making poor choices.

I must say I’m glad to hear that Woodward has been suspended indefinitely. A person who calls little children “stupid” has no right to be a teacher.

Interestingly, the News and Tribune article also quotes Carol Mooney, who is with the Indiana State Teachers Association, as saying “the school administration’s actions were unfair” and asking “What do you say to a kid who’s rolling around, punching, biting, kicking?”

Well, one thing for sure – when a child is rolling around, punching, biting, kicking, you DO NOT call that child stupid, but try to find out what makes him behave like that!

It just happens that the same day I found out about this story, I read the following in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, edited by Lynn Meltzer, and published in 2007 by the Guilford Press.

It is critical for teachers, care providers, and parents to realize that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) do not engage in inappropriate behaviors intentionally to be malicious or manipulative. (emphasis mine) [...] A common misconception is that they are capable of learning to behave differently but are just lazy or unmotivated. Students with ASDs and other neurodevelopmental disorders (such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.) [...] cannot learn different ways of behaving without interventions that are specifically geared to their learning strengths and styles. It is the responsibility of parents and educators working with these students to address their specific deficits and find effective methods for teaching and reinforcing more appropriate and adaptive behaviors. -”Executive Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorders: From Research to Practice,” by Sally Ozonoff and Patricia L. Schetter, in Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, edited by Lynn Meltzer.

Maybe instead of saying the salute to the flag each morning, the teachers should read this quote every day, as their mantra, and try to abide by it.

No Autistics Allowed? (the story of Alex Barton)

Everyone has already heard this unbelievable story – a teacher in a kindergarten classroom “led” her pupils “to vote […] out of class” a five-year-old being evaluated for Asperger Syndrome.

The first coverage of this story (or one of the first) appeared on TCPalm.com (May 23, 2008 “St. Lucie teacher has students vote on whether 5-year-old can stay in class” by Colleen Wixon).

As the newspaper reports “each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about […] Alex” and “by a 14 to 2 margin, the class voted him out of the class.” Alex’s classmates said that he was “disgusting” and “annoying.” “The teacher then allegedly asked the boy where he would go now that the class doesn’t like him the boy replied, ‘to the office?’ the teacher returned with ‘they do not want you there’ then the 5 year old said ‘home’ the teacher said your mom is at work you can’t go home. He finally said that he would go to the nurse and the teacher sent him out of the classroom to the office where he stayed for the remainder of the day.” (treasurecoast.com, Friday, May 23 “Austistic 5 year old allegedly physically, mentally abused by Port St. Lucie School Teacher”)

Melissa Barton, Alex’s mom was interviewed by CBS and the “raw video” of this thirteen-minute interview is available online.

Wendy Portillo, Alex’s Teacher, has been “reassigned” to another position while the school board is investigating the incident to decide what to do next. She has not commented on the incident to the media, per the advice or order of the school officials, as I understand.

TCPalm.com has a page with links to all articles on their site covering this story, including editorials, some in defense of Wendy Portillo.

The May 29, 2008 article “Police report reveals teacher’s side of incident in which boy ‘voted’ out of Port St. Lucie class”, by Coleen Wixon has a link to a pdf file of the narrative portion of the police incident report which so far is the only place where one can read Wendy Portillo’s side of the story.

What surprised me from this report is that she filled out a discipline referral for Alex for “pushing up the table with his feet.” His classmates’ work was sliding off the table as a result, and for that he was sent to the principal’s office.

I am also floored by Portillo’s statements in her testimony that “the students in class were all her priority and she would protect them like ‘a bear defending her cubs’” that “she would not let them hurt anyone and she would not let anyone hurt them.” It is quite obvious she did not consider Alex as one of the cubs. I bet Alex will remember for the rest of his life the way she hurt him and humiliated him in front of his classmates. (Just as I still remember my second grade math teacher hitting me and my classmates on the palm with a ruler, or my first grade PE teacher calling me antisocial in front of the whole class, and that was a really long time ago.)

Portillo also claimed “she felt if [Alex] heard from his classmates how his behavior affected them that it would make a bigger difference to him, rather than just hearing it from adults.” That’s why she “polled the class to see how [Alex’s] peers felt about his return.” And that comes from a teacher who supposedly is trained and certified to teach special needs children.

I don’t know who trained Wendy Portillo in teaching special needs children and what special needs were covered in her training but she sure doesn’t know squat about autism.

I am shocked that discrimination like this comes from a person who is a minority and I’m pretty sure has been discriminated against herself and should know what it feels like to be criticized for just being who you are and for something you have no control over.

Alex’s classmates telling him what they don’t like about his behavior will not change his behavior because he has no control over it, just as she has no control over the color of her skin. How would she feel like if her peers told her they don’t want her as part of the teaching faculty because of her race? I’m sure she’d be outraged, as she well should be. Luckily, even though there’s still plenty of “below the surface” racial discrimination in this country (which people feel very uncomfortable talking or writing about) such open racial discrimination is illegal in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it seems there’s still a long way to go to combat the legal discrimination on the basis of a neuropsychological disability. I’m sure it would not even occur to Portillo (or at least she would not dare) to put a minority child or a child in a wheelchair or an overweight one through a “vote” like this.

I also could not believe some of the comments left by readers in response to the news reports about Alex. And as much as I’d like to think that the comments against Alex and supporting Portillo and the exclusion of children on IEPs from regular classrooms were written by “trolls” – people who post inflammatory remarks just to stir up people and make them angry – I’m afraid that a lot of those comments truly are what people who wrote them think and believe and that’s what they teach their children.

One of Alex’s classmates, Jessica Moore, cried when Mrs. Portillo was removed from the classroom. She was among those who voted Alex out of the classroom and sees the incident as a “non-event.” Her father, Terrence Moore, of course doesn’t see anything wrong with that picture and calls Portillo a “very caring teacher.” (TCPalm.com, May 29, 2008 “Police report reveals teacher’s side of incident in which boy ‘voted’ out of Port St. Lucie class”)

I am terrified to think whether any of parents of my son’s classmates would want him removed from the classroom. Some of the behaviors that made Alex’s peers vote against him were humming or eating paper. My son doesn’t hum or eat odd things anymore, at least not in school, but he used to. He stopped doing that because he received a lot of accommodations and behavioral interventions at his integrated preschool. If he had a teacher like Wendy Portillo, I’m sure he’d be voted out sooner or later as well.

Everyone who has or worked with an autistic child knows that even with the high functioning kids the symptoms are quite noticeable right away. I’m floored by the fact that Alex has been in school since September and for the past nine months the school has done nothing to help him when it is widely documented that for autistic children intervention and support at this age is crucial and can make a lot of positive difference in the future.

There has been tremendous coverage of Alex’s story on blogosphere. I especially like the post “Wendy Portillo’s Psychological Mob Lynching of a 5 Year Old” on Thinking in Metaphors (I like too many parts of this post to quote it, I’d have to quote the whole thing)

and “Alex Barton” on Life with Joey where the author writes

“Not only was Alex Barton emotionally abused, but so was his entire class. […]This was an assault on an entire classroom of children, with Alex Barton as the focus.” (the entry also includes links to other blogs discussing Alex’s story)

Another blogger on MOM – Not Otherwise Specified (I love the title!) makes a very good point for inclusive education in her post “The tribe has spoken”

“In the midst of a difficult, troubling year, Alex Barton’s teacher called his village together and rallied them against him. Bud {the blogger’s son} also had a difficult, troubling year and, interestingly, his teacher also called his village together for a tribal meeting. Unlike Alex, Bud was not there for the meeting. And the agenda for Bud’s tribe’s meeting was distinctly different: one of the special ed team members came in to talk to Bud’s class and help them understand Bud a little better – help them understand the things that are difficult for him, the things that are easy for him, and the things they could do to support him through the challenging times. Like Alex’s village, Bud’s village came together. But Bud was embraced instead of exiled.”

And finally, I found very interesting the entry “Why I am closing the comments on two posts” on Asperger Square 8, where the author writes

“Around the web, you can find comments stating that she did the right thing, that children must be made to behave through any means available. You will also find people saying she should be harmed emotionally and/or physically for her crime. I’ve heard that she is undeserving of life. This is not acceptable to me. […] I know that if my worst moments were shown to the world, were discussed on numerous sites, some with nearly a thousand comments now, I would not want to continue living. Yet I believe in redemption (not in a passive sense, but through hard work toward change) and I hope that others, including Portillo, do too.
When people start coming to my blog and talking about revenge and sending people to hell, it is time to take a break. […] For the sake of the other Alexes, those whose names are not in the spotlight, it is time to turn our attention toward the larger societal problems, those which allow bullying to occur, not just in one school in Florida, but throughout this nation.”

I agree – even though I’m afraid the war on discrimination will never be won completely, we cannot stop trying. That’s why I’m planning to request putting in my son’s IEP “educating the school staff about autism and ADHD and the types of accommodations and interventions required” – a suggestion I picked from A Parent’s Guide to Special Education: Insider Advice on How to Navigate the System and Help Your Child Succeed, by Linda Wilmhurst and Alan W. Brue, published by AMACOM in 2005.

Personal Introduction

My son is twice exceptional — he is both academically gifted and special needs, or the other way around, depending on how you look at it.

There are times when I’m amazed at his intellectual abilities. Even since he was little, he could always figure out very fast how toys are operated and what he has to do to make it move. When he was two he could do quite complicated puzzles, the type for preschoolers. His daycare teachers were borrowing games from the preschool class especially for him. I also noticed he had an amazing memory and could remember events and places for a long time afterward.

Now, at nearly six, he can read fluently, is pretty good at math, knows all the planets in the solar system, etc, etc. Some of his favorite TV shows are the typical stuff that smart, geeky kids like: the PBS shows Cyberchase, Fetch!, Super Why, and Curious George; the Discovery Kids shows Popular Mechanics for Kids and Crash! Bang! Splat!, and Magic School Bus. But he also watches such shows as How It’s Made shown on the Science Channel and Brainiac shown on G4.

The popular belief out there about gifted kids is that these kids’ parents are pushy and “train” the kids to be gifted.

I admit, we have always tried to read a lot to him (if he’d sit and listen). And we have been trying our best to answer the never ending stream of questions he’s been asking over the years, starting from “What does this word say?” to, most recently, “Why are the red blood cells red?” and “What is infinity divided by two?”.

Our son also attended a Montessori preschool for two years and they have wonderful educational materials that, in my opinion, help kids learn how to read, write, and do math much faster than the conventional methods teachers use. I believe that academically he progressed at that Montessori school much faster than he would have at a regular preschool (but he also progressed faster than his peers in his Montessori class).

And yes, if we made him watch the Cartoon Network instead of letting him watch the Discovery Science Channel, he would not know more about the solar system and the universe than I do.

But giftedness, or as some call it “raw intelligence,” is not something that can be “trained” or”taught.” I suppose if we kept our son locked up in a dark cellar he would not know as much as he knows, but I have a feeling he would figure out his way out of there anyway.

When he was two and started daycare, his teachers wrote in a monthly report that he likes exploring the room and that in his explorations he has dismantled the faucet above the kids’ sink. They had not known that the faucet could be taken apart because no other child before had tried to do it.

That ties into our son being special needs.

As much as I love him and admire his gifts, there are times when I’m absolutely sure a diagnosis of ADHD is just a matter of time. He’s always on the go, touching everything, pushing all the buttons he sees, opening all the drawers and doors, or at least trying to do that, no matter where we are, at home, in the doctor’s office, at the grocery store, or anywhere we are. He can’t eat a meal sitting down, he has to stand and fidgets all the time. When he sits down, he still fidgets, and sometimes he falls down and appears truly surprised he fell down. On the other hand, when we send him to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and go in after ten minutes to check on him, more likely than not he is has gotten distracted and is just playing with water, and of course has completely forgotten why he went there in the first place.

There are also times when I’m afraid he will end up heavily medicated or worse, institutionalized. Because even though for the most part he’s a sweet and loving kid, there are times when he licks the back of the seat in front of him, his hands, or the window and does not understand why I am so opposed to him doing it. There are times when he goes in his pants because he is too absorbed in doing something and is “too busy” to go to the bathroom. He also does not seem to understand why he should not do that. And there are times when he just spins or seems to be in his own world, ignoring or not hearing what we are trying to tell him.

And then, not very often, but every now and then, especially after a long weekend full of him being wild and unresponsive, the medication route looks very enticing.

If only I knew what is the right thing to do…

There are days when I am completely exhausted from dealing with him and originally I wrote here that there are times when I wished he were institutionalized or medicated, but I’ve decided to change that. The truth is, even on those days, after he goes to bed and I have had a chance to sit and think and calm down, all I really want is to know how to help him have a happy life.

By the way, our son does not have a clear cut diagnosis. He’s been evaluated by three different specialists, each from a very renowned clinic or center, specializing in child development and various mental, neurological, and developmental disorders. And each of them told us a different thing and recommended a different course of action to help him.

When was three, we were told by an MD, MPH specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics from the Developmental Medicine Center at the Children’s Hospital in Boston that he has a Developmental Coordination Disorder. That was also when the tests confirmed he’s gifted.

When he was five, an MD specializing in Autism spectrum disorders, attentional difficulties, learning disabilities and school problems at the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Evaluation and Rehabilitations Services (LADDERS) center said that he has PDD-NOS.

Shortly after that, we were told by a PhD in psychology specializing in Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the Center for Child and Adolescent Development that he’s “just a plain old bright fun kid.”

Both my husband and I are very committed to helping him. We always attend the IEP meetings together. I’ve also been reading a lot of books, scouring the Internet for information. But, as my husband says, it’s hard to help him, if we don’t know what it is we’re dealing with and what the best course of action would be. This blog is intended to be my record of what we’ve tried, what we’ve learned, and any progress (or lack thereof). I can already see it will also be therapeutic for me to write about our son. And if anyone happens to find any useful information here, that would be an added benefit.