WARREN, NJ - Different is not synonymous with deficient and autism does not need to be cured, a Warren Middle School student told the Warren Township Board of Education at its meeting on Monday, May 21.
Johannes Wellerding, an eighth grade student at Warren Middle School, took the opportunity for public commentary at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting to address special education in the district and to remind the board that different is not synonymous with deficient. 
And he said:
Good evening President Brezee, Superintendent Mingle, and the Board of Education. I am a current eighth grader attending Warren Middle School. In a month, I will graduate, after nine years in the Warren Township School District. Perhaps you will recall that earlier this evening I was honored for my writing? When in elementary school, one of my then-teachers said of me that my writing was “grossly below grade level.” I think we can all agree I’ve proved her wrong.
 In August of my fourth grade year I picked up my cello rental, and by the time school started in September, had taught myself a piece from the opera ‘Carmen’. I have, with the supports built into my IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, maintained honor roll every quarter each year. I joined the gifted and talented program, E2, in sixth grade, and have had the opportunity to flourish in areas that I am passionate about. In March, one week after my 15th birthday, I opened my first business.


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Let me introduce a few more people.


A German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. 


One of the most prolific and influential composers of the classical era. 


A groundbreaking feed-animal handling systems designer, professor of science, author, and internationally renowned speaker.


Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Temple Grandin. Each of the individuals I’ve just mentioned have a commonality...as do I. We are each on the Autism Spectrum. Each of the individuals I’ve just mentioned, including myself, achieve in our areas of skill and passion, at high levels. 


I should like you to leave here tonight with the acceptance of one truth: Different is not synonymous with deficient. 


Inclusive education consultant Cheryl Jorgensen wrote, “Our judgments about students’ intellectual capacities affect every decision we make about their educational programs, their communication systems and supports, the social activities we support them to participate in, and the futures we imagine.”


I have, as you may recall, addressed the board before regarding special-needs diagnostic language being used as a slur in our schools. What’s become clear to me this past year, is that the appropriation of these terms and how they are used to differentiate and exclude special education students from the neurotypical, general education population are not only systemic in our schools, but a direct result of the language used by administration. What I, and my true peers, meaning those who are classified as special education students, experience is best classified as the “trickle-down effect.” When our diagnoses are used as a means of separating us by administration, teachers and parents, students in our schools learn to do the same. 

 In “The Creativity Post”, Nina Fiore writes “Forcing students to change who they are, in order to “fit in” with the typical students, does not make an inclusive classroom. Ignoring students’ academic potential because they need different supports is not inclusion. A child should not be required to change who she/he is to be included in a school.”


In the fall of this school year, a post was shared on Warren Township Board of Education’s public Facebook page where a student was honored who, and I quote, “befriended a student with autism and accepts him for who he is.” My reaction upon reading these words, posted so publicly for not only parents, but students, staff and the general public to see? “Great, my school district thinks I’m a freak and that befriending people like me is award-worthy. What’s up with that?” Clearly, I was annoyed. Here, in print online for all to see was a statement that implied that those on the Spectrum are viewed as somehow less desirable and that befriending or accepting one such as myself is somehow exceptional. 


Again, let me remind you of that truth: Different is not synonymous with deficient.


On April 24, I attended the BOE meeting held here at WMS. Superintendent Mingle, you made a statement during that meeting regarding the recent program piloted at Central Elementary School during Autism Awareness Month. On the BOE’s facebook page, that event was described as “promoting acceptance, diversity, and an understanding of autism and how we are all different and unique in many ways”. On the BOE’s website, the director of special services said “We are all different in many ways; everyone is unique. We strive to embrace diversity whether it be in the way you look, the way you learn or the way you communicate; each and every student collectively contributes to the fabric that makes the Warren Schools unique.” During your remarks, you shared for the heart-tugging and humorous reaction, that one student was so moved by what he had learned during the program, that he wished to cure autism. 


Cure autism.


Which is neither an illness, nor a disease. Its very name, Autism Spectrum Disorder, clarifies that. Autism is defined as a complex neurobiological disorder. As a spectrum disorder, its symptoms and effects are seemingly too numerous to list. But one thing is quite clear. It is not an illness . . . not an infection . . . not a contagion . . . not a disease. Autism needs no cure. I need no cure!

And for that to be your highlighted takeaway for the public from a program that was promoted as “developing and/or increasing not just awareness but the much-more important acceptance”?  I respectfully suggest that the mark was missed. 


As administrators, you are in the position to devise the ways in which information, accurate information, is communicated. I urge you to exercise caution in the future as your attitudes regarding special education and the students who fall into that category are always being seen, always being heard, and always being imitated.