By Roger Phillips
STOCKTON - During a freewheeling daylong discussion of autism in young adults Saturday, there was one message above all that Peter Gerhardt was trying to transmit.
The educational system, he said, is failing to adequately prepare children with autism for independence as adults.
"I'm very tired of meeting adults with autism who can do a math worksheet properly but can't cross the street by themselves," Gerhardt told an audience of perhaps 200 educators and parents - and a few young adults with the disorder - at Saturday's annual autism forum at the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
Gerhardt, director of a school program in New York that serves adolescents with autism, has worked in the field for more than 30 years. He visited Stockton to drum home the point that the educational system that is serving children with autism is inadequately preparing them.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by deficits in social interaction and communication. People with autism typically have a very limited range of interests, and frequently, they engage in repetitive activities. Diagnoses of autism have soared in recent years.
Gerhardt's discussion of autism touched on sexuality, social skills, employment and the use of leisure time. Independence was the overriding theme; young men and women with autism deserve to be trained to be as self-reliant as possible, he said.
"Our job as a field is so 'dayhabilitation' is only for people who need that level of service," said Gerhardt, 52. "Right now, you're either very, very independent or you need 'dayhabilitation.' There's nothing in-between."
Gerhardt played off the title of the movie "Home Alone."
"What would your (autistic) son or daughter do if left alone for 48 hours?" he asked. "Sadly, in many cases, not very much."
In some instances, the task is to train the young adult to be more socially appropriate by adapting his leisure activities to his chronological age. Gerhardt gave the example of weaning an autistic adult's musical tastes off of Raffi and onto Jack Johnson.
"Jack Johnson," Gerhardt said, "is Raffi for adults."
Sometimes, the obstacle is a "neurotypical" person - someone who does not have autism - who refuses to find a way to accommodate an autistic individual. Gerhardt quoted a young woman with autism who asked, "If I was a wheelchair user, would you say, 'I'd love to hire you, but first you have to learn to walk?"
And sometimes, the roadblock is that a student's public behaviors don't conform to societal norms. This can result in being ostracized, though Gerhardt joked that this is rarely a problem in Manhattan, where he works.
"I'm really not concerned about my guy getting noticed at the Dunkin' Donuts at 25th Street and 10th Avenue," he said, "when my guy is probably the most appropriate person there."
Gerhardt said preparing autistic children to lead happy, productive lives involves much more than attempting to maximize their academic potential. He said too much energy is spent on creating abstract plans for an autistic child's adulthood, not enough on ensuring that the actual outcome is successful.
He said he does not like to classify autistic people as "high functioning" or "low functioning" because he knows autistic people with IQs of 140 who are "not functional" and others with IQs of 40 who are "very functional."
Independence, he said, should be the focus of all Individual Education Plans written by school officials for their autistic clients, because independence is the key to fulfillment.
"We need to focus on skills that really make a difference in a person's life," Gerhardt said. "If we're not providing skills that transfer out of the classroom, that's a real problem. When is the last time any of you wrote an IEP where the goal was happiness?"
Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/phillipsblog.