Autism, again

Autism is once again at the center of a battle on when special needs kids should be allowed to try to fit in.

According to a CBS story, a Port St. Lucie, Fla., mother of a 5 year old boy with autism said “Morningside Elementary teacher Wendy Portillo had her son’s classmates say what they didn’t like about 5-year-old Alex. She says the teacher then had the students vote, and voted Alex, who is being evaluated for Asperger’s syndrome — an autism spectrum disorder — out of the class by a 14-2 margin.”

Said the Chicago Sun-Times, “After each classmate was allowed to say what they didn’t like about Alex the teacher said they were going to take a vote, Barton said. They said he was ‘disgusting’ and ‘annoying,’ Barton said.

“He was incredibly upset,” she said. “The only friend he has ever made in his life was forced to do this.”

The teacher’s side of the story isn’t out yet, because the school board asked her not to talk to the press, but she’s been “reassigned.”

This story, of course, follows closely on the heels of a situation in Bertha, Minn., where a Catholic church banned a teenager with autism, from attending services in the sanctuary.

This week’s New York Magazine features a story on the “new autism activism.”

These activists argue that autism is not an illness but an alternative way of being. The preferred terminology among disability activists is to speak of a “person with deafness” rather than a “deaf person,” or a “person with dwarfism” rather than a dwarf. But Sinclair has said that “person-first” terminology denies the centrality of autism and has compared “person with autism” to describing a man as a “person with maleness.”

  • GregS

    Gosh, this topic demands the wisdom of Solomon.

    Every child has a right to a public education which means education happens “in public” i.e. with everyone else, including people who annoy and disgust us.

    On the other hand every child has a right to a safe learning environment, one free from disruptions.

    Often, as in the case of the church in Bertha, an autistic child can be disruptive and a threat to others.

    It is a very sad situation all around.

  • Bob Collins

    But it hardly takes Solomon to determine that you don’t conduct a public vote among 5 year olds, while encouraging them to speak out about why they don’t like him.

    There were avenues to address the teacher’s concern besides public humiliation. Presumably the teacher’s brain was a “healthy” one. The kid with autism at least has an excuse for his behavioral problems.

    Two voted to allow him to stay. I presume one was the kid, himself. That kid has a friend and that friend’s parents should be mighty proud tonight. The rest? They’ve got some work to do.

  • Amy

    As a mother of a child with autism, this sickens me. The cruelty brings me to tears. Don’t they have to deal with enough?! What else must our children endure? We must teach all children to embrace one anothers differences…that a child with autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness (ect.) deserves to be loved and treated with respect…just to know that they matter. Differences (color, gender, religion, disabilities) should not be judged…or voted on. Differences should be a learning experience for us all. How else are we to unite as the human race?

    If Ms. Portillo were able to be in my shoes for one day…to look into my son’s eyes, to watch him face obstacles everyday, to watch him struggle to succeed, and to see his joy when he does…she would take nothing for granted. She would consider it an honor to be a part of his life. And, in my opinion, Ms. Portillo should not be simply “reassigned”, she should be FIRED.

  • GregS

    Yes, on the face of it conducting a vote among five year olds to oust another child is over the top, but we have not heard the other side of the story.

    In the Bertha case, we, eventually, did hear the other side of the story and learned that the “child” weighted over 200 lbs and physically attacked a little girl. We also learned that the church in question bent over backwards to accomidate a militant and inflexible mother.

    In this case we do not know what the behavior problems are. Is there violence involved?

    But again yes, the vote was out of line.

  • Chris Dall

    You’re right that the story from Bertha was more complex than this, but I’m sorry, what could the other side of this story possibly be? If the child was being disruptive in class, one would hope that the school would have a better way of dealing with this.

  • Kathy

    I’m sorry, but I really don’t see any other “side” to the Florida story. The teacher had a number of options to go to if the child was being disruptive. Federal law provides only that children with special needs be given reasonable accommodation. If the autistic child in question was disruptive, the teacher had only but to seek help from her principal and district to get him the assistance he needed to be mainstreamed into the classroom.

    If the child was merely disliked by the other kids because of his autism, then the teacher should have used the issue to help the kids understand about differences.

    This — and the situation here in Minnesota — are both examples of how far we really need to go to be more accepting of differences, including special needs.

    One more thing to consider, folks… the rate of autism is climbing exponentially across the globe. We have no choice but to learn to interact intelligently and gracefully with autism.

  • Bob Collins
  • Maggie Griffitt

    As a parent and as a professional working with individuals with disabilities, I am appalled by what occurred in the Florida classroom. I have a child with Asperger’s Syndrome and am very aware of how annoying these children can be to their peers and how they can disrupt a classroom. However, the teacher had many options available including simply removing the child from the classroom.

    What this teacher did was not for the purpose of restoring classroom order nor can it be suggested that public humiliation would “teach the child a lesson”. What this teacher did was plain mean and vengeful and would not be appropriate even with a child who was typically developing. A child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has deficits in their abilit to interact normally with others. To stand such a child in front of the class for others to label is just hurtful to the child as it would be to any person, child or adult.

    What kind of message did this send to the other children in the classroom? Does this teacher think that a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has no emotional capacity? The teacher should not be reassigned. What she did amounted to abuse. She should be fired for cause and her teaching license rescinded. There is no place for mean spirited people in our children’s classrooms. Parents and disability advocates across the country are watching to see how officials in Florida will respond.

  • c

    /Presumably the teacher’s brain was a “healthy” one. The kid with autism at least has an excuse for his behavioral problems./

    wow this woman, by no means is in any shape or form one to be considered-a teacher.

    I am with Amy and Maggie.

  • Rebecca

    I am just so sorry to hear of this happening. That child is going to be feeling the effects of this event for a long time in his life. Just as we all have to learn to deal with other differences in our midst, reality will require us (one way or another) to deal with learning and developmental issues as well. It cannot be easy to teach kids with challenges, but one big part of a teacher’s role is to be wiser than the children.

  • GregS

    I am not so willing to leap to a condemnation without hearing both sides of the story.

    In the case of church in Bertha, the initial reports were overwhelmingly favorable to the autistic child and his family. Only later were we allowed to hear the full truth.

    This was a small case, a small incident but we should have learned long ago not to trust the media when it plays strongly to popular prejudices.

    Look what happened in the Duke Lacrosse team case.

  • Bob Collins

    Of course, part of the problem here is the teacher with her side of the story has been muzzled by the school board.

    Re: Bertha. We never discussed it much here but WWJD?

  • c

    people hear more and more of children who are being diagnosed with autism lately.

    are teachers -the everyday typical teacher-equiped with the skills to teach a child diagnosed with autism? perhaps since you hear of more children being diagnosed with autism THE MEDIA or some other form of mass communication could find a way to enlighten the public on what autism is and perhaps teachers should be trained to teach children with autism as well as add ocd and every other label that has been created in the last decade.

  • Kathy

    Look what happened in the Duke Lacrosse team case.

    Um, bad example. The Duke LaCrosse matter was driven more by the corrupt prosecutor than by the media. Had the prosecutor dropped the case when he should have for lack of evidence, media interest would have died.

    We also need to define our terms here. Autism is on a spectrum. The young man in Bertha has, as I understand it, a severe form of autism. The child in Florida has Asberger’s Syndrome, which is an extremely MILD form of autism. In fact, most individuals with Asbergers can live very normal lives, and I daresay we know individuals who have Asbergers and not even know it.

    I repeat… I cannot feature a situation where the teacher’s actions are even remotely justifiable. The actions were not discipline — even for a normal kid.

    One more thought and I’ll shut up…. the Latinate root of the word “discipline” is “teach”, not “punish.” We speak of Christ’s disciples — who were taught… not punished. If we’d keep that in mind, it’s pretty darn easy to figure out who had the real problem — the teacher or the child.

  • GregS


    What would Jesus do?

    Well for one thing, he did things differently from most people because he was not bound by mortal constraints.

    He could hang out with lepers without worrying about contracting the bacterium that spread leprosy. Hell of an advantage there.

    Unfortunetly, though mere mortals may aspire to lofty notion of fairness at any price, they are wise to act in accordance with the fact that they are – mere mortals.

  • c

    Jesus was a man.

    We have the capabilities of Jesus. He told us that we do. We do.

    You are as capable or incapable as you believe.

  • GregS

    Jesus did not have a child worry about and while I can more than sympathize with a parent of an autistic child, I can also sympathize with a parent with a child attending class along side an autistic child with behavior problems.

    According to the story, Alex spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office. He had just been sent there again prior to the “vote”.

    I agree from what information we have the teacher did not seem to act in a professional manner, nor did she act in the best interests of Alex or the other children

    But story of the “vote” obscures the fact that Alex apparently had some serious behavioral problems.

    At what point does Alex’s behavior preclude him from a mainstream education?

    At what point does the rights of the other children to an education trump Alex’s right to an education?

  • Bob Collins

    When it comes to utter cruelty, there aren’t many species on the planet that can top kids to other kids.

    Long-term, I suspect the answer is lots of research money to find a cure for the frailties of the brain so that these questions don’t need to be asked.

  • Chris Dall

    I think THE MEDIA has been doing a pretty good job in the past few years of enlightening the public about autism. I think the public is more aware of autism than it ever has been. We’re a long way from the belief that autism is caused by “refrigerator mothers.” And schools are getting better at understanding the needs of kids on the spectrum, and incorporating them into the mainstream classroom.

    But as Bob notes, and it’s the main concern I have for my child, kids can be mean. And I’m not sure how much education or the media can change that.

  • Kathy

    But story of the “vote” obscures the fact that Alex apparently had some serious behavioral problems.

    Even if I accept your premise that Alex had some serious behavioral issues, the problem isn’t Alex’s behavioral issues, whether you want to admit it or not.

    The problem is that the teacher is the adult, and therefore responsible for her behavior, and that she chose a course of action that was not only ineffective, but damaging to the child. Damaging. Period. Not corrective. Damaging.

    Spend some time reading about Asbergers and how it damages social interaction. Then tell me that any “behavioral problems” Alex may have had was worth making a bad situation worse.

    The teacher’s actions are indefensible. Period.

  • GregS

    Even if I accept your premise that Alex had some serious behavioral issues, the problem isn’t Alex’s behavioral issues, whether you want to admit it or not.

    The teacher’s behavior should not obscure Alex’s behavior. It appears from several of the stories I read that Alex was disruptive enough to deny other children the right to a safe and orderly learning environment.

  • Chris Dall

    But the larger point here is that if Alex’s behavior was so disruptive to the other kids, it should have been dealt with in a different manner.

  • GregS

    But again we really do not know how the matter was actually dealt with by the teacher. All we have the word of a litigating mother.

  • Bob Collins

    Here’s some more information that’s pretty interesting.

    Another kid in the class seems to generally confirm the outline of events.

    As usual, however, the comments section makes me appreciate our News Cut commenters all the more.

  • c

    //But Iowa-based author Gail Pursell Elliott said what happened sounds like “mobbing,” which involves group public humiliation and embarrassment.

    “The children in that class learned how to mob someone — from the teacher,” said Elliott, who wrote “School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse.” “This type of thing shatters a person’s self-esteem.”//

    Adults do this all the time. This woman who was running the class should be fired.

    again, I am asking where does the insanity end?

  • GregS

    There does not seem to be a great deal of sympathy for Ms. Wendy Portillo. In fact, if there is such a thing as a virtual lynching, she’s getting one.

    I guess I just have this voice in my head that says when the press and blogsphere rush hard in one direction, move in the other.

  • Bob Collins

    //sympathy for Ms. Wendy Portillo.

    Part of that is her refusal to to talk about the situation. It looks like she’s under orders from the school board to keep her mouth shut.

    In the absence of her side, you’re right, only one side is getting any attention. But that has to be factored in as a consequence of the decision not to speak.

    I think we agree however that (1) there was a vote in class about what people didn’t like about another student and (2) that was a pretty stupid thing to do.

    Beyond that, the issue simply comes down to whether she had a good reason to take the path she took.

    From what I can tell from the comments here, nobody believes there was a good reason to take the path she took. We certainly await her reasoning.

  • Minn whaler

    WOW!!! This is definitely an intense subject. I have so many comments, yet so little time.

    GregS.: If a child in a classroom had juvenile diabetes, or leukemia and was disruptive (even for say 10% of the day) would you be questioning who has the rights to a mainstream education? And if so, are you well acquainted with the Free and appropriate education law?

    C… Right on in many ways, but, and this is a BIG BUT!!!

    A mental illness diagnosis is not a label. It is a diagnosis. Labels given to children such as the child in this story are: Annoying, Disruptive, Stupid, Faggot (yes even by kindergarten), LOSER, GEEK, Jerk, etc. and usually what comes with that is societal condemnation and ostracization. That this practice in American society has reared it’s ugly head in kindergarten sickens me.

  • Severe autism is a great tragedy often cause by older fathers sperm mutations that increase with the father’s age.

  • Alison

    Since the topic of the MN parish with the restraining order came up, it seems worthwhile mentioning the discussion that I had with someone who works with autistic kids. She said that the mental overload of taking a kid like that, who seems to be pretty much untreated, to a church with organ music and a lot stimulation is cruel to the child. She said that church service is probably way too much stimulation for him. Listening to the parents on the news, they seem to believe that if they don’t bring their child to church for every obligated mass that he will go to hell. So essentially, there seems to be a Catholic church (in the larger sense) that is unflinching on the requirements to get into heaven, parents who fall hook, line, and sinker for that BS, and frustrated local church members having to put up with a child whose parents probably shouldn’t be bringing him to church anyway. So, WWJD? First, from what I have read, Jesus seemed to care more for people than reinforcing he letter of any law. Jesus would have had enough sense to help the child, even if that means not going to church. Find another way to pray with the kid. Finally, Jesus would not have kicked anyone out of his house.

    Certainly the response from the local church is reprehensible, but it strikes me as typically Catholic – the definition of which I have learned from my 34 years in this church, is hipocrisy.

  • Lily

    On autism:

    I had a child in Catholic School form grades K-5. We didn’w know it then, but we now know that he has Aspergers. We were basically run out of town by both the Catholic School and the public district, by a community who didn’t have or take the time to understand my kids’ ailment. As parents we were blamed for the condition–surely the result of poor parenting or simply a bad kid.

    How wrong you people were!!!

    What would Jesus do? Open his hand , heart, wallet, and world to kids and families struglling with autism and other neurobiological brain illness. Rid the world of teachers, prinicipals,school administrators and school psychologists (are you listening Michelw M.?) whose only response it to roll their eyes and parents present the needs of their disabled child (ren).

    Is it any wonder that homeschooling and/or online charter schools are becoming the norm for schooling children with special needs? Wake up school districts and others. Some day YOUR job will not be needed.

  • GregS

    GregS.: If a child in a classroom had juvenile diabetes, or leukemia and was disruptive (even for say 10% of the day) would you be questioning who has the rights to a mainstream education? And if so, are you well acquainted with the Free and appropriate education law?

    At what point does the right of a single child to an education trunp the rights of a classroom of children to an education?

  • c

    /A mental illness diagnosis is not a label. It is a diagnosis/

    What I am saying is that sometimes these children are mislabeled. What a doctor make a mistake? Never!

    Just becasue these children are struggling with their surroundings in the classroom doesn’t mean that they are ADD OCD ADHD and I even think that some children could be misdiagnosed with Autism. Some children are just better off with home schooling. Who knows maybe the kids in this childs classroom are the problem-it’s not like its impossible that the class could be chock full of ill will children (at no fault of their own). My whole point is that teachers are wayyyyy to eager to label a child these days

  • GregS

    Couldn’t agree with you more c.

    A couple years ago, the Minneapolis Public Schools found the method they had been using to determine EBD had no basis in science or medicine, it was simply whatever they deemed it to be.

  • Minn Whaler


    What I asked was.. Are you familiar with the law? It tends to tie hands, etc. and with the new “No Child Left Behind” Act teachers are pushed further to find a reason to not allow an “under-performing” child to remain in a mainstream classroom.


    Again, teachers can label or not label all they want. Legally they are not allowed to diagnose a child. Why??? Because they are not physicians.

    The “labels” they are guessing at are medical diagnosis and I do not question whether this is happening or not. I know it is. Education for parents is.. THIS IS AN ILLEGAL PRACTICE and as unacceptable as the tactics Ms Portillo took.

    So C & Greg agree, teachers are much too eager to label. Dig a bit more… WHY??? Funding. As soon as a child appears to be unable to fit the cookie cutter test taker that “No Child Left Behind” requires in order to earn the federal funding, the teacher’s jobs are in jeopardy because the school’s funding is in jeopardy, because the district’s funding is in jeopardy, because a government that believes in local control is mandating standardized performance in order to earn federal $$$ for that district.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are numerous (thankfully more than not) gifted teachers responding well to the challenge before them. Those who can teach a classroom of children at different ability levels and still meet the necessary standards. As with mental illness, the only stories worth telling are the negative ones. It is a vicious cycle and on the surface seems so simple.

    Greg, c and others… look at the law and if you feel it is violating one’s rights over another… then start talking to folks who can possibly change that. Meanwhile, unless you’ve been on all sides of this issue, I do not believe you can even begin to understand how reprehensible Ms. Portilla’s actions were.

  • huntersmom

    GregS. I find it humorous that you’re so concerned about this child being mainstreamed and causing a disruption in the classroom. My son battles the opposite. He is a high school senior with Autism who is mainstreamed and the problem he has most in his classes is getting upset because of the “normal kids” that are constantly disruptive and rude. Now, what do you suggest for that? The “normal student” causing the disruptive behavior be placed in an inclusion class???