School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the tag “Autism”

Leveraging Unique Talents

It’s graduation season, a time of celebration as students mark major transitions in their lives, moving onward and upward from high school, college or graduate school. For parents, graduation represents a major milestone on their child’s journey towards independence and adulthood.

But for many parents whose children have autism or other disabilities, graduation is a goal often postponed, sometimes indefinitely or even permanently. Even those fortunate enough to earn a degree often struggle to get and keep a real job for real pay. While we’ve improved access to education for people with disabilities, access to transition services and meaningful employment remains far too elusive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. The numbers for the autism community are particularly troubling; one 2009 study revealed that employment rates for people with autism are among the lowest of all disability groups.

This week, SAP, a German software company, announced plans to help the autism community change its employment odds. The world’s biggest business-management software maker intends to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

“SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment,” the company said. SAP will begin its hiring project in Germany, then North America, with the aim of having people with autism make up 1 percent of its 65,000 member workforce by 2020.

To achieve this goal, SAP will partner with Specialisterne, a non-profit that “works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” SAP’s partnership with Specialisterne is the brightest spot thus far in a modest but promising trend of training and employment projects aimed at people with disabilities.

SAP executive board member Luisa Delgado said that SAP and Specialisterne “share the common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges.’ Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”

Management consultant expert Peter Drucker famously stated that “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.” SAP and Specialisterne are applying this same principal to people with autism by utilizing their unique strengths while helping them overcome their challenges, so that they can work, contribute to society, and lead meaningful lives with dignity.

Well done.

Beth T. Sigall

May 25, 2013



This past week we learned of yet another serious allegation of abuse of a child with special needs. The incident involved two staff members, and purportedly occurred at an elementary school in Marysville, Washington.

Meg Coyle and Jake Whittenberg of King 5 News report that the seven-year-old child in question has multiple challenges, including ADHD, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. The energetic second-grader is the adopted daughter of Angi Wilson. The child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help address her various needs.

Ms. Wilson claims staff members at the school placed her daughter alone in a small storage closet for two hours as a consequence for misbehaving (the door was removed, with a piece of plywood serving as a barricade). Ms. Wilson also claims her daughter at other times has been dragged by the collar, pinched, hit and had her hair pulled – all by staff members.

School administrators placed the staff members on immediate paid leave while investigating the matter. Time-out rooms are allowed under district policy, but only if regulations are followed. In a surprising twist, the District has refused to allow reporters to see the closet.

I’ve written previously about the devastation suffered by families of children with disabilities when those children are abused by their teachers. In some cases, parents who suspected mistreatment but couldn’t prove it placed a hidden microphone on their child, only to discover horrible episodes of abuse of their child.

Children with special needs can be particularly vulnerable to abuse, given that many cannot speak or communicate effectively. These students often are placed in self-contained classrooms away from their peers, who could serve as witnesses to misconduct. Moreover, when students do manage to speak up, their claims are at times met with skepticism. For example, some parents at the Marysville school refused to consider even the possibility that teachers might be abusing children; they instead blamed the child. Said one parent: “I think it’s the kids themselves playing around and put themselves there (in the closet).”

All this translates into the painful reality of special education classrooms that have small groups of disabled students who cannot describe to their parents what they see going on with their classmates or what they are experiencing themselves. And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are doing remarkable work with challenging students in these classrooms and beyond, it only takes a few ugly episodes to shatter the bonds of trust with parents. Every parent of a child with special needs who reads a story like this inevitably wonders: “What if my child is being abused? How would I know? What can I do to prevent it?”

A law recently passed by the Washington state legislature and awaiting signature by the governor would require that parents be notified when a child with an IEP is placed in a time-out room or is otherwise restrained. This is a good start, but more is needed.

It’s time for school districts to place security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms. The Texas Senate passed a bill this month mandating cameras in special education classrooms after hearing “heartbreaking” testimony from parents describing episodes of abuse. Video technology is now widely available. These cameras provide an extra set of eyes and ears for our most vulnerable students, and can also protect teachers against false claims of abuse. If we can place cameras on school buses, in crowded high school hallways, at doggie daycares and inside ATM machines, we can and should place them in self-contained classrooms.

Beth T. Sigall

April 27, 2013

Some Thoughts on Autism Awareness Day

Today (April 2) is World Autism Awareness Day. April is Autism Awareness Month. You may have noticed lots of people, places and things “lighting it up blue” today to help raise awareness.

Autism has been part of our lives since July 2, 2002. On that day, at a hospital in Washington, D.C., our oldest son was diagnosed with autism.

Since that day, we’ve travelled together on a remarkable journey. Our son has gone from someone for whom the basic stuff of childhood – speaking, playing, learning, dressing and just living – were hard. Extraordinarily hard. Fast forward to today and we see our beautiful teen-age son who truly has the world ahead of him. He’s gone from someone afraid of water to someone who jumps in the swimming pool with reckless abandon. He used to fear all dogs; he is now completely devoted to our black Labrador, Lucy. In the past 12 months he ran a 5K race, learned how to ski and mastered writing computer code using two different programming languages. He went from a struggling reader to someone who just finished Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And best of all, his infectious sense of humor routinely results in all of us cracking up at dinner time, especially his two younger brothers (who adore him as much as his parents).

And so today, when we hear so many vital messages about autism – about education and policy and research and support – there is one message from our family that we want to send to everyone: Thank you. Thank you to every family member, friend, neighbor, therapist, counselor, teacher, doctor, nurse and even, yes, strangers, who took the time to help us. We are forever indebted to your kindness. We would never have arrived to where we are today without it.

I’m often asked, what does autism need? What can we do to help? There are many possible answers to this. It’s a complex issue that touches on multiple domains: science, public policy, education, awareness. But looking back, if there is one common thread that unites it all – the one thing any person could do to help another person with autism – to me it can be summed up in two words: unconditional love. Because if we start with unconditional love, no matter where our journey takes us, we know that journey won’t be so scary. It will be a journey we travel together and one that will take our son and so many like him to extraordinary heights. And so again, from our family to everyone we say on Autism Awareness Day, THANK YOU for supporting our son and people like him.

Beth T. Sigall

April 2, 2013

Fairness, parenting and the world of autism

This past summer marked a significant milestone in our journey with autism as we passed the 10-year anniversary of our oldest son’s diagnosis. July 2, 2002 is certainly a date that will remain permanently etched in our collective memories as parents. You never forget the day your child is diagnosed with autism. I remember everything about that day – even the pattern on the doctor’s necktie. I kept looking at the necktie instead of directly at the doctor trying to keep from tearing up. I knew I needed to be focused because this was going to be hard and I needed to be strong. Really strong. Looking at his necktie helped keep me calm.

We walked out of Children’s Hospital that day with the same wonderful little boy (now age 13!) we walked in with, and also with the emotional juggernaut of being thrown into a world we’d never navigated – not knowing what was ahead, and yet also knowing that we needed to step up in the biggest possible way to do the best possible job parenting our son.

Looking back there are so many lessons learned – I can’t possibly touch on all of them in one blog post. There are large lessons about patience, endurance, empathy and unconditional love. And smaller lessons, too, like the best way to teach getting dressed or brushing teeth to someone who has a hard time with motor planning.

Recently I came across a wonderful Facebook page written by a woman named Karla. And reading her posts brought to the forefront an issue we grappled with, particularly early on, with our son – the issue of fairness. Because there is a really tricky balance with parenting and autism: how much do you accept the person with autism for who they are and embrace their autism, and how much can/should you help them through therapy or other strategies so that they can learn to navigate a world where most people don’t have autism.

Karla’s ASD Page gives parents and the non-autism world a glimpse inside the thinking of a person with autism. Her poignant and at times biting commentary describes what life is like with autism.  She makes a compelling case that life with autism can be a rich and rewarding one, not just second-best or runner-up to a “normal” life.  By offering this glimpse inside her world, Karla shows us that an autism life is a viable if not a remarkable thing. Part of the problem as she sees it is moving the non-autism world toward a better understanding of how people with autism view and experience the world. She characterizes her mission as “not fighting autism, but working with it.” Amen.

I highly recommend following Karla’s AD Page on Facebook.  She gives people with autism a voice, and those without autism need to listen.

Beth T. Sigall

October 12, 2012

Different path but same destination (part 3/final)

Over thirty five years ago Republicans and Democrats came together in support of the “simple yet profound” belief that students with disabilities are entitled to an education alongside their non-disabled peers. In passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress recognized that the public school system was not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Prior to this, children with disabilities were turned away routinely from their public schools. Indeed, in 1975, more than one million students with disabilities were not allowed to attend public school.

Fast forward to today – millions of students with disabilities now receive a public education. In this respect, IDEA helped dramatically shift the paradigm of how we think about educating students with disabilities.

But, as explored in two previous posts, what happens to students with disabilities after they exit school? Are they ready for employment in the real world? And is the real world ready to employ them? The answers to these questions have substantial implications, given that an estimated 2.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. reported disabilities in 2008 (as described by Toddi Gutner in “How to tap talented students with disabilities”).

Some big-time companies are stepping up to help address this pressing need. And as is so often the case, parents continue to lead the way, primarily through the formation of non-profit groups that provide training, networking and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Here are some inspiring examples.


Lime Connect – launched in 2006, this program recruits students with “hidden” disabilities, such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia from top universities, including Princeton, Duke, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. Lime Connect helps these students land internships and ultimately careers at major corporations, such as Google, Target, PepsiCo, Apple, Cisco, McKinsey & Company and others, according to Toddi Gunter with Reuters. Students gain both networking experience as well as connections to other students with hidden disabilities; the connections to similarly situated students is one of the more popular features of the program, writes Gutner.

Unlike some job-training programs for students with disabilities, Lime Connect’s selection process is highly competitive; last year, 125 students applied for 20 fellowship slots. Once chosen, interns do not receive special treatment from their respective companies. According to Lime CEO Susan Lang, “they compete with everyone else. All they’re getting is the connection.” Many land jobs with their companies once the internship ends.  And these companies appreciate the unique qualities these capable students bring to the table. 

When these companies get exposed to our exceptionally talented men and women who have already climbed a mountain and overcome something in their short lives to be successful, they want them on their team

Tom Wilson, former head of global talent sourcing/recruiting at Merrill Lynch and Lime Connect board chairman.


Aspiritech – Founded in 2007 by two parents whose adult son with Asperger’s Syndrome had just been fired from his part-time job bagging groceries despite having a four-year college degree, Aspiritech is a non-profit with a mission to “provide a path for high-functioning individuals on the Autism Spectrum to realize their potential through gainful employment.” Based in Chicago, Aspiritech provides a path to employment by aligning “the unique talents of the autism community,” such as attention to detail and technical aptitude, with the needs of the business community. They provide software testing services to companies.


Specialisterne stands as one of the most-recognized global efforts at employing people with disabilities. Its stated goal is to create one-million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges “through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” Founded in Denmark by parents of a child with autism, (father) Thorkil Sonne mortgaged the family home to cover the start-up costs. Specialisterne trains people with disabilities like autism to do IT work, such as software testing. Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe writes that Microsoft pays “top dollar” for IT work done by Specialisterne“because the quality is superior.” The company recently was recognized as a “good practices” organization for its compliance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Specialisterne now has a U.S. presence in Minnesota.

How can state legislatures help? Massachusetts is considering a bill to revise licensure requirements for special education teachers, allowing them to seek certification in “transitional services.” According to Scott O’Connell of GateHouse News Service, advances in educating students with special needs have “boosted chances at finding employment” but without appropriate transitional support at school “those skills go to waste.” According to O’Connell, some students then “simply go on to receive state services” instead of working.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep Tom Sannicandro, seeks to improve the quality of transitional services offered at the high school level. “Right now they’re not adequately prepared for that transition,” says Sannicandro. “A lot of times there’s a drop-off.” Like IDEA over thirty-five years ago, this bill also has attracted bipartisan support among legislators.

Beth T. Sigall

December 12, 2011

Post Navigation