There has been a discussion over at So You Want to Teach? (currently my favorite education blog) about Asperger’s and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) more generally. This is an issue that has struck a chord with me in recent weeks, so I was glad to see how other educators and parents have dealt with the education of autistic individuals.

The reason is one I’ve been gradually becoming more comfortable discussing: My oldest son Christian, who will turn three in January, was diagnosed with severe autism in November. My wife and I were not surprised at the diagnosis: Christian has never really been verbal except for a few pseudo-babbling words (e.g. “Mama,” “Dada”), which have since left his use. He has been working with various therapists (speech language pathology, occupational therapy, developmental therapy, nutrition) from our state’s Early Intervention program for about 18 months now, and we have seen a great deal of progress, including some communication in the form of signs (he can sign “more,” “please,” “eat,” “drink,” “bye,” and more recently, “thank you”). We credit this primarily to the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) that his speech therapist has initiated with him.

With this diagnosis from the developmental pediatrician we visited, we were able to get Christian into an early childhood special education program when he turns three. (Odd coincidence with this: The woman who taught my special education class at the university I attend is now my son’s special ed administrator. Even stranger: I was part of a group that presented on autism in that class! She must have done a decent job with the class, since I understood his IEP readily when I looked over it.) I am fairly confident as a result that my son will be able to receive the kind of education he really needs to thrive here, but this is only temporary until he reaches school age. What then?

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, of course. We may not be living in the same small district at that point, since I’ll be looking for teaching positions this spring and we might consider moving to another town depending on where I can get a job. It has, however, made me think more about my own educational philosophy.

How does the educational struggle of my son affect my approach toward teaching? Simply, I have become increasingly more aware of how my instruction can succeed for some students and fail miserably for others if I am not careful to consider differences in learning ability and styles in my preparation.

This was the question at SYWTT?, specifically how to alter instruction to accommodate a student with Asperger’s (a less severe form of ASD than classical autism), and this was my primary contribution to the thread:

I will wholeheartedly agree with you [Mrs C.] that understanding Asperger’s or any form of ASD is about getting to know the individual student. There’s a reason that we use ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) more frequently than PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder): it really is a spectrum, and no two individuals with ASD will be the same. You can understand stereotypical behaviors, learn strategies to help with some of the deficiencies (like poor verbal or social skills), and so forth, but you have to individualize instruction to some degree. Fairness in the classroom is not always about giving equal tasks; it is sometimes about giving students an equal chance to succeed, and clearly a student with Asperger’s will need a different way to demonstrate learning than his or her “typical” peers. (no underline in original)

The blog’s author, Joel, called this last underlined sentence and said as well:

I had always been under impression that fair and equal were the same thing. … But equality is often unfair. Fairness is often unequal.

Commenter Nancy further remarked:

Thomas Jefferson once said “There is nothing more unequal, than the equal treatment of unequal people”. In a truly differentiated classroom what is fair for one is not always fair for all.

I cannot, of course, lay claim to this idea; I actually was introduced to the notion that fairness and equality are not identical in the classroom by an English teacher who I interned under at my own high school – who, not coincidentally, has a daughter with special needs, I believe. He actually presented it as a principle of classroom management – a teacher must not worry about carrying out a different disciplinary action on two different students if there is good reason to enforce a more strict action on a student who requires a more drastic action to correct an inappropriate behavior – but the principle is equally applicable (no pun intended) in the context of instruction.

Bottom line: We cannot adopt a “one-size-fits-all” model when it comes to classroom instruction. We must know our students and their individual needs, keeping them when we prepare our lessons and implement them. When we reflect on a lesson, we must additionally gather inferential data about which students did not succeed and attempt to find ways to meet needs that we did not meet in the instruction of this day. Most importantly, we must never take the easy road of giving equal tasks to unequal students but instead must find a way to help every student succeed as much as is possible. Every child – special needs or not – deserves this from their education.

Update (12/30) – Nancy left another comment with a JFK quote that seems appropriate to add as well:

“Not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation; but children have the equal right to develop their talent, their ability, and their motivation.”