Youth Takeover: What Learning With Autism Is Like for One SF Teen

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A teenager in a distance learning classroom.  (Image by Marc Thele from Pixabay)

This piece was written by Zachary Yieh, a 16-year-old sophomore from George Washington High School in San Francisco for KQED’s Youth Takeover Week.

When I was about 4 1/2 years old, I was diagnosed with a learning disability known as autism. It was very rough growing up with it, considering the fact that I wasn't able to have an actual conversation until I was about 7 years old.

Zachary Yieh, a 16-year-old sophomore from George Washington High School in San Francisco.

School was very difficult for me when I was younger. I had been working at a different pace than other students. Teachers would always discuss with my parents about ways to improve my learning. I have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which allows special accommodations for school. But I still face some discrimination from school staff. I asked my mom, Janet Yieh, about how that played out when I was younger.

“This really sticks out in my head because it was right when you were going into kindergarten," she said. "I stopped to talk to your brother's former kindergarten teacher and I asked her if she was ready to have you in her class the next year. And her response was, 'I don't think Zachary is going to be a good fit for my classroom.' "

She said she was really shocked by the teacher’s response, but found another kindergarten teacher who was willing to take me on.

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My mother is a huge advocate for me. She made sure I got every therapy, camp program and accommodations. She created a parent support group at my elementary school. She wanted to help the parents that were struggling and the ones that didn't know how to advocate for their children. There was obvious discrimination against students with disabilities, often from the teachers who were supposed to be supporting me. Teachers regularly underestimated my ability to do schoolwork because I didn’t have functional speech at that time.

By the time I got into middle school, my disability was almost invisible. I told a few people that I was autistic, but they didn't believe me. This is probably because they see others with autism whose behavior was different than mine. But because I got support from my parents when I was little, I didn't struggle at school anymore. Many people with autism, however, have social problems, sensory processing issues and even difficulty understanding instructions at my current school.

My case manager, Ms. Claus, helps me to advocate for myself. She also makes sure that I'm on the right track with my schoolwork. Another way I'm able to keep up with school is by communicating with my teachers to make accommodations when necessary. I recently spoke to Ms. Claus about discrimination in schools.

"Students with IEPs face discrimination from a variety of sources and in a variety of levels ranging from their peers and other adults," said Claus. "Ranging from small comments or name-calling, all the way up to people calling into question whether or not [students with disabilities] receiving accommodations and services is appropriate.”

Ms. Claus said some students and parents think it’s unfair to give extra time and help to some students and not others. But she disagrees.

“That's problematic because students with IEPs need those things to be able to succeed," said Claus. "And when you talk about fairness, it shouldn't be everyone getting exactly the same thing. It should be everyone getting what they need.”

Forum on school equity

She said funding for special education services is another factor that leads to discrimination.

I've heard classmates say "this person has autism," or use the R-word as a slur. People assume that students who have disabilities are just straight-up stupid, or that they can accomplish goals in life and their feelings won't be hurt when insulted. Bullies often manipulate people with disabilities by playing mind games people with disabilities don't understand.

Right now during distance learning, many students with individual education plans are struggling to have all their accommodations met because of the pandemic. Thousands of students who would normally have one-on-one aid are not receiving services. This means they cannot meet their academic, behavioral, social and emotional goals. These students will be further behind when we go back.

The fight for disability rights is still an ongoing battle. It helps that there are people like my mom, my case manager and even my friends who are passionate to help people with disabilities.