By Angela McManaman
In a village just outside Dakar, Senegal, people wonder if the 8-year-old girl who won’t talk and avoids eye contact is bewitched.
In a Milwaukee high school, administrators might think that the student who routinely leaves the classroom without permission is a behavior problem.
University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee special education professor Elizabeth Drame sees these children differently. She’s conducted more than a decade’s worth of research and interviews with parents, teachers and advocates for children diagnosed with autism, emotional/ behavioral disorders and learning disabilities.
In evening courses with her special education students – many of whom are already classroom teachers – Drame challenges long-held assumptions and biases regarding children who have special needs.
“It’s beneficial to all of us to see lives and circumstances not as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’” Drame says, “but to understand that there are different ways of being.”
Drame relocated her research from Milwaukee to Dakar, Senegal after being named a 2011 Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. In Dakar, she evaluated education centers for children with disabilities. She noticed that autism seemed particularly challenging for educators and families.
“The teachers and administrators were telling me: ‘We don’t know how to understand the way these children are, or what to do with them. We don’t know how to talk to families about the fact that their children are not bewitched.’”
Her observations supported findings from the African Child Policy Forum: Africa faces a shortage of trained and special education-certified therapists, physicians and educators. Rehabilitative services that are provided weekly in the United States might happen only two or three times a year in a city like Dakar.
Services in the U.S. are more accessible, Drame notes, but barriers still exist, particularly in urban communities. For the one in 68 American children who have autism, diagnoses can be made as early as age 2 or 3. Children of color, says Drame, might not receive an accurate diagnosis until much later.
To address these barriers, Drame launched UWM’s Autism Spectrum Disorders Certificate Program in 2010. Since returning to Milwaukee in 2012, she’s prioritized working with families of color who are often shut out of policymaking and advocacy efforts. She takes their concerns personally, and they’re a big reason she helped resurrect the now-annual Milwaukee Urban Autism Summit in 2014 with the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin.
Drame also teaches about the intersection of behavior, race and culture to students like Jonathan Arens. A special education teacher in Milwaukee who just completed his first year in the classroom, he works with high school sophomores diagnosed with emotional/ behavioral disorders – EBD, for short – and other health impairment, or OHI.
The EBD diagnosis is applied to children whose behavior or emotional responses deviate from established norms, which affects their ability to meet expected classroom standards and behavior. OHI describes someone who doesn’t fully respond to environmental stimuli, possibly due to another health condition like asthma or attention deficit disorder. Both conditions prompt teachers and administrators to create an individualized education program or IEP, a legal document that identifies a child’s learning needs and spells out how those needs will be met.
For Arens, Drame’s Behavioral Supports class was a place to sift through the delicate demands of his new career.
“Dr. Drame’s class provides really good cultural context – you need context for everything you do as an educator – for understanding what services these students need to succeed.”
Arens is paired with another teacher who writes and teaches the lessons, while Arens makes sure all students’ IEPs are precisely followed. After two semesters with Drame, Arens knows well her most important advice for special educators: “Behavior is a form of communication.”
It reminds him of a student who sometimes left class without permission and was considered a behavior problem. Arens stepped back from the labeling and, over several months, analyzed the child’s behavior pattern, which was rooted in being teased about reading difficulties. Once the communication within the behavior was found, Arens developed a plan to provide resources that would improve the student’s reading.
Maybe that child will never read easily. Perhaps the child will stop formal schooling after receiving a high school diploma. But Drame insists on viewing children who have disabilities through a wider lens.
“A child with autism, or who is described as EBD or OHI, doesn’t need to have their dignity and worth limited by what is considered normal,” Drame says. “They need to be accepted and appreciated as human beings with an exceptional gift. Whether it’s a great singing voice or an aptitude for programming, every child has a gift within them that can enrich our community and society.”