Special-Needs Students Yearn for Acceptance

February 6, 2013

Two of my children once attended a small private school in a town where we had just moved. Early in the fall semester, another new kid at that school—a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who would now be 19 or 20 years old—had several emotional “meltdowns” as he sought to adjust to his new routine. This unsettling behavior caused some school officials, and a number of concerned parents, to wonder if our school was equipped to handle the challenges presented by this student (whom I’ll call “Bradley”).

Bradley’s teachers rallied to his cause. They appreciated his keen intellect. And they were reluctant to give up on him—partly because Bradley had had a rough childhood. (His condition had been misdiagnosed for years, causing household stress that contributed to his parents’ divorce). But there was an even greater reason for the teachers’ reluctance: Since this was a Christian school, the teachers felt they had a special responsibility to “go the extra mile” with social outcasts like Bradley. Even if this was, at times, difficult.

So, Bradley remained a part of our school. And the teachers who’d had experience working with Asperger’s students helped those who’d had none. And they all sought to teach their students some important “life lessons” about dealing with people who are different from you.

Apparently, some of these lessons got through. One day, I chaperoned a dance at the school. When it came time for the first number, I saw one of the most popular teen girls in the school maneuver into a position where she could be the first girl Bradley asked to dance. This girl didn’t have a romantic interest in Bradley. But she did have a heart of compassion—and a maturity beyond her years. And she recognized that no girl would be apt to dance with Bradley unless someone like her saw past his social awkwardness and validated his worth. As a human being. As a child made in the image of God.

After the dance, Bradley got into his mother’s van and made a peculiar announcement. “Today, I placed my hand on the hip of four different girls,” he said. These odd words brought tears to his mother’s eyes, for she understood them to mean that her socially awkward son’s yearning for human connection, for some measure of normal acceptance, had been met in a most meaningful way that day.

Now, I don’t want to insinuate that an episode like this could have only occurred at a Christian school—or that it would have happened at every faith-based private school. But when I consider how their Christian faith affected the way these teachers and students treated Bradley, I can’t help but affirm the Florida policymakers who created the McKay scholarship program that made it possible for Bradley to attend a private school of his family’s choosing. Especially since a recent research study suggests that Bradley’s experience at that school was not that unusual.

According to a Manhattan Institute study, 47 percent of McKay scholarship recipients had been picked on often at their local public school—and 25 percent had been victimized physically. At their new schools, chosen for them by their parents, only 5 percent of these special-needs students experienced frequent harassment and only 6 percent were physically mistreated.

In view of all this, I think every state ought to adopt programs like Florida’s McKay scholarships, Oklahoma’s Henry scholarships, or Arizona’s Educational Savings Accounts, all of which give families of special-needs students the freedom to choose learning options for their children beyond those available at their local public school. For many Asperger’s children (and other students with special needs) yearn for human connection and social acceptance—and delight when others affirm their worth in the eyes of God.

William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute. His four children have all attended public high schools.