Many of us know the feeling of being chosen last for a team or the wish to "ditch" gym. We all know the desire to make a friend. In this episode, we see Max struggling with these issues. In some ways, these are typical struggles for a middle school student. There are at least three issues here. The first issue is Max's not wanting to be part of a group that wants to exclude him; the second is using his Asperger's disability as an excuse to avoid a difficult social situation; and the third is his taking the time to make a friend. All in all, except for using the Asperger's diagnosis as the excuse, Max sounds like almost any adolescent to me. That's a great thing. The central concern in the episode for me is the gym teacher's failure to facilitate both Max and Micah's participation in gym. It isn't Max using his Asperger's to get out of an awkward situation that is the problem, but the teacher's failure to use it as a teaching moment for both him and the other students.
However, because Micah is sitting out, too, we know that she isn't one to look for accommodations. With regards to Micah, she simply isn't doing anything to accommodate him during the class at all as he sits alone on the sidelines with his electronics. Regarding Max, she does nothing to facilitate his being part of the group so he can learn and participate by accommodating his social disability. Her actions are not simply wasting the boys' time, but are actually depriving the boys of a free and appropriate public education (in this case, the physical education curriculum) as required by law. She and the school, by extension, are breaking the law. She is also unfortunately teaching the children that it's okay to discriminate. This is a serious breach of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a law that protects students with disabilities from being discriminated against in the public school system and mandates that children with disabilities receive a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE). The laws governing the education of a child with disabilities also assert that education take place in the least restrictive environment.
The gym - with all of the nondisabled students - is a perfect, least restrictive environment to make the accommodations necessary for the boys with disabilities to learn the lessons we all learned in physical education. As I was thinking about what to write regarding this episode, I talked over the general issues it raises with Sarah Vinson, one of the Emory Medical School residents I teach in my clinic. Sarah astutely pointed out that students aren't ever allowed to simply "not participate" in math class. This, of course, is true: if either boy had a math disability, the math lesson would be modified to allow their full participation at a level appropriate for them, and they would be expected to participate. The time wouldn't simply be wasted. The boys wouldn't simply be left to their own devices, literally. Thank goodness Max and Micah find one another and use what could be completely wasted time to work on their social skills and to make friends. Good for the boys! I remember nearly every time Frankie has made a friend.
These have been times of celebration and pride for us as parents. I am sure parents who have children who struggle with mobility, sight or reading have the same memories of their children's successes in overcoming their core difficulty. For those of us with children on the spectrum, our child making a friend is the real measure of winning against the autism. In the blossoming of Max and Micah's friendship we see all of his, his parents' and his therapists' hard work paying off as he overcomes his Asperger's. Too bad the school isn't doing their part to help both boys. Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.