A School District That Takes the Isolation Out of Autism
MADISON, Wis. — Garner Moss has autism and when he was finishing fifth grade, his classmates made a video about him, so the new students he would meet in the bigger middle school would know what to expect. His friend Sef Vankan summed up Garner this way: “He puts a little twist in our lives we don’t usually have without him.”
People with autism are often socially isolated, but the Madison public schools are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes. Now, as a high school junior, Garner, 17, has added his little twist to many lives.
He likes to memorize plane, train and bus routes, and in middle school during a citywide scavenger hunt, he was so good that classmates nicknamed him “GPS-man.” He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. “Garner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,” said Casey Hopp, his coach.
Garner’s on the swim team, too, and gets rides to practice with a teammate, Michael Salerno. On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks it’s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. “They get angry,” the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. “Then they see it’s Garner, and he gets away with it. And that’s how practice begins.”
On his smartphone, Garner loves watching YouTube videos of elevators (“That’s an Otis; it has an annoying fan.”) When John Stec, a swim teammate, met him two years ago, he assumed Garner wouldn’t talk much. “But as soon as you say stuff, he says stuff back to you,” John said. “He knew everyone’s name on the team even before he talked to us.”
This is why Garner’s parents, Beth and Duncan Moss, moved to Madison from Tennessee several years ago. In Tennessee, his parents said, they were constantly battling to have Garner included in regular programs, going through four mediation disputes.
“After third grade there, I told my husband, Garner would go nowhere in life and the family would fall apart,” Ms. Moss said. “We had to leave.” At the time, Ms. Moss, who stopped working as a teacher when Garner was born, was attending autism conferences. “I kept hearing about Madison,” she said.
Families with children with autism and developmental disabilities move from all over the country for the Madison schools. Kristi Jacobsen, whose son Jonathan has autism, moved from Omaha several years ago. She and her three children live here full time, while her husband, who has a financial business in Omaha, commutes back and forth.
“It’s a sacrifice,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “But Jonathan’s made such progress. They give him every opportunity to be part of the community.”
Lisa Pugh’s family moved from Wichita, Kan., for their daughter Erika, 11. A year and half ago Ms. Pugh took a job in Washington, but last month the family returned because, Ms. Pugh said, they missed Madison’s schools.
Build it and they will come. Nationally, about 12 percent of students are identified as disabled, but in Madison 17.5 percent are, according to John Harper, who oversees special education. Mr. Harper said that 88 percent of elementary students with disabilities were fully included in classes, along with 81 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students. Most of the rest have a mix of general and special education classes; fewer than 5 percent are separate.
David Riley of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative said Madison was one of the “big three” leaders in successfully implementing inclusion, along with the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Clark County, Nev.
While it costs Madison $23,000 to educate a child with autism (to pay for extra support staff members) versus $12,000 for a typical child, Colleen Capper, a University of Wisconsin professor, said inclusion was cheaper than segregating students.
For years this liberal university city’s seven-member school board — which includes Ms. Moss, Garner’s mother — has been unanimous in supporting inclusion. “This is not a board that separates our children; it’s a board that believes every child should be educated,” said Marjorie Passman, a member.
Madison is changing, however: an influx of poor children, a migration of wealthier families to the suburbs. Parents of the gifted recently petitioned for more honors classes, and Ms. Passman thinks they’re needed.
One parent, Laurie Frost, said: “I am not convinced that even the most masterful teacher — and we have many of them here in Madison — can teach effectively to the full range of ability and need we currently have in our public schools. Not at the same time in the same classroom.”
Budget cuts this year, with more expected next, could undermine the fine balance. “The danger,” Ms. Passman said, “is it becomes us versus them. And that’s not good for anybody.”
Ms. Moss hopes not. Garner used to run away and collapse on the floor in despair if he had to change rooms. The schools, she said, have patience with him. In elementary grades his teachers learned to tell when he was about to explode from pent-up energy, and let him leave to ride an exercise bike. In sixth grade, he had his first class without an aide, band.
In ninth, when he went out for cross country, he’d get lost during practice, so the district hired a college student to run with him until he learned his way.
He has always been in general education classes, but usually with an extra teacher or aide. This year, he will be on his own in most classes, including English, chemistry and personal finance. He’s a familiar figure, striding home from school with his swim bag, backpack and alto sax.
His development has always been uneven. He rides the bus downtown to his father’s law office, but can’t tie his track shoes; at meets his teammates tie them. Summer days start with cross-country practice at 8. (In summer, running and swimming are with club teams made up of his high school classmates.)
One day when his mother went to pick him up after practice, he’d run the 1.7 miles home. He rested up and watched a tape from the previous night’s Milwaukee Brewers game.
“When they get a hit, they sprint,” Garner said.
“Yes, they do,” his mother said.
“Do you have to jog when you hit a home run?” he asked.
“Fireworks go off and everyone’s clapping,” she said.
He wants to be a train engineer.
He and his mother drove downtown to meet Mr. Moss for lunch. Garner wanted “something and fries.” He knew the building where they ate was built in 1936 and the route of every bus that passed.
When his mother stopped at a University of Wisconsin building, Garner was excited to see an elevator. “A Schindler,” he said. “That’s the original call button. Hydraulic. From the 1970s. I’m going to ride it up to 5, Mom.” As the doors closed, he could be heard narrating his own elevator video that he was recording on his phone.
His mother had forgotten which garage she parked in, but Garner knew and remembered the car was in Section N.
Swim practice was at 3. “Any new video, Garner?” a friend asked. And of course, there was fresh footage of the Schindler.
Later, when asked what Garner might become, Ms. Moss said: “He’d be most happy working around mass transit, airports, trains, bus stations. He’ll need to be on his feet, not sitting. He likes to be around people, not isolated.”