By Tracy Murray for The Atlantic
A charming, bright 5-year-old stands out in his classroom at Maurice Wollin elementary school, on Staten Island, as an extremely social, kind, and curious child. He remembers more about his peers—names, significant events, likes and dislikes—than almost any other kindergartner at his school does.
But despite his genuine interest in his classmates and their well-being, he often struggles with interpreting their feelings and intentions—he has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (This 5-year-old and the other students mentioned in this article have been granted anonymity to protect their privacy.) One morning last month, in the middle of a math lesson, a soft-spoken classmate accidentally bumped into his shoulder, and quickly apologized with a big, friendly smile. But the sociable child concluded that his classmate was being mean, and punched him in the shoulder, then dropped to the floor, crying, his arms flailing and his voice growing louder.
In many classrooms, a teacher’s aide might have pulled him aside, attempted to help him calm down, and encouraged him to be quiet. If he didn’t comply, and continued to disrupt other students’ learning, he might have been sent to a counselor’s office or the principal’s office, or have been sent home for the day. (Across the nation, students with disabilities are suspended at twice the rate of students without them.)
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