About 1 percent of the world’s population has an autism spectrum disorder. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. More than 3.5 million Americans live with it. The prevalence of autism in U.S. children has increased by 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150 births) to 2010 (1 in 68). During the 1960s and 1970s it was 1 in 2000 births (!!!).
Children with Asperger’s Syndrome frequently have good language and cognitive skills, but have problems with communication and functioning in a group. They usually want to fit in and interact with others, but often they don’t know how to do it. They may be socially awkward, not understand conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They don’t understand the use of gestures, sarcasm, humour and "between the lines" content.
"You’re too stupid to pass this exam" - Matthew, an Aspie teen, heard from his literature teacher. Why? Because he couldn't understand why Romeo loved Juliet. This boy's time at school had been a pain from the very beginning. Praised for extraordinary skills in math, science, geography etc., he was considered lazy and unintelligent by humanities teachers. His mom was forced to move him from one place to another because "he lowers the prestige of the school".
"Aspie kids cannot understand poetry, the same way a daltonist is unable to see colors," Matt’s mum says. "But this was beyond the imagination of the teachers."
This story is nothing unique: school systems are too rigid and inert to adapt to children who are different, all the more when the different ones are in such a rapidly growing amount. The same thing is happening to kids with diagnosed dyslexia: they’re called stupid and lazy and are usually not given a chance in the system which demands that every individual learns the same things at the same time and with the same pace.
At school, Aspies are usually scapegoats. They are an easy target: unable to understand the emotions of others and to imagine their way of thinking, Aspies don’t lie, don’t plot, and don’t understand that others can do it. The parents of other kids are not fond of them, either. The special needs pupil in the class draws a lot of the teacher's attention, they say, and the teacher has less time for my, normal, child. Moreover, in Poland, where after the latest election the rule was taken over by a right wing conservative catholic anti-liberal party, the ministry of education has decided to shut all special needs kids into the closet of special schools, instead of letting them integrate with peers. For Aspies it would mean having no chance to learn standard social skills.
My son Alan is an 8 year old Aspie from Poland. Despite living in a big city, it was really difficult to find a school that could meet his needs.
Private schools, whose marketing is based on results, told me to not even apply. They don’t want a "problem", saying politely "we aren’t prepared for such a child". Only a few public inclusion schools accept such kids, but as I learned, they aren’t able to secure their physical or emotional safety, both from peers and from teachers.
Alan was very lucky. In the year he was obliged to start his education, a foundation named Free Way established Democratic School. The idea is based on an alternative or even an anti-pedagogical concept created by the founder of the famous Summerhill School.
- School should be made to fit the child, not the child being made to fit the school.
- Learning is a right, not an obligation.
- Adults do not teach, but accompany in development.
- Every decision and all the rules are made by the community.
Anna Czyńska, foundation and school leader, when asked why she started it, answers,
Because my whole experience shows that it’s needed.
Relationships between adults and children are still based on violence.
And I believe in friendship between them.
It's been my dream since I read about Alexander Sutherland Neill and his idea. I was shocked when, as a university teacher, I told students about Summerhill and they usually said they would be afraid to work in such a school. What kind of educators are they, if they’re scared of kids?
It’s a great joy to see the kids enjoying being here and developing. I owe this school a lot. It made relationships with my own children even better, when they saw the way the school works. So I’m a beneficiary of the project I initiated.
Peter, one of the mentors, also has personal reasons why he likes the school:
School is my way to go through childhood once again. It’s a kind of redemption. Waking up my forgotten dreams and a chance for my own kids.
My Alan’s school is not a democracy, it's an anarchy. Or rather paedocracy. Or rather paedoterrorism :-) I'm pretty sure it’s good. The general school in its contemporary form is a totalitarian anachronism. It neither prepares children for life nor supports personal development. Kids still learn the names of dead kings or poets and rivers in Asia by heart, while each of them has a smartphone with Wikipedia in it. But they don’t learn how to fill in a tax declaration or choose insurance or a bank loan. The education system assumes that children are stupid and lazy and puts all its energy into restraining them. And children are extremely creative and perceptive. They’re able to learn the names of hundreds of Pokemons by heart. "But such knowledge has no use in life". And what’s the use of names of kings, poets or rivers?
The funniest moments are when I tell my friends that Ula loves school and is upset when I pick her up earlier. Their faces: priceless. They also completely don’t understand why children want the summer holiday to be shorter.
[The standard in Poland is 10 weeks, in Democratic School it’s 5 weeks, but attending isn’t obligatory anyway].
"What’s the best thing in your school?" Lena, 9 years old, answers,
Us :-) This school is cool
“It’s my school. Peter is a great friend of mine. I don’t want to go for summer break and not see all the children from school for a whole month.”
Like with all system-breaking initiatives, this school has its opponents too, including "fast and furious grandmas". "He should be taught to bend himself to society, and not have his individuality nursed," says Alan's grandmother. "He’s already a freak. When his parents die, he’ll collect food out of trashbins to survive". Some people just cannot imagine that a child who’s growing without teachers, desks, class-ending-bells, homework and notes can manage their life in the future. But some generations ago, most people believed that a child who isn’t punished and beaten can’t become a good person.
Maybe this is the key to the problem? People who are good by nature believe that others are also good by nature, and given freedom, will tend to do good things. Those who aren’t good inside demand control and punishment, because they think only fear can stop human beings from doing evil. But their way of thinking shows their own attitude.
After a year in Free Way Democratic School, Alan made huge progress on all levels of his functioning. The biggest development was made in communication and social interaction, which are his biggest deficiencies. This has been confirmed not only by his environment but also by his psychiatrist. In previous years he attended kindergarten but wasn’t interacting with other children at all, and barely with adults. Now, when asked what he likes about the school, he says,
I like Marta, Peter, Ania and Rafał. I Like Lena, Leo, Mike and Nick. I have my whiteboard to draw on. It’s the best school in the world.