I don’t usually feel compelled to present book reviews as blog posts. However, after reading “Mommy, I Wish I Could Tell You What They Did To Me In School Today” by Richard Stripp Sr., I felt a responsibility to discuss it here. In it, the author, a special needs aide in the New Jersey public school system, offers a forthcoming and graphic depiction of some of the problems non-verbal special needs children have faced (and may continue to face) while attending school. It’s a book that evoked a range of emotions in me, from anger to deep sadness.

It’s arranged into individual chapters representing ten non-verbal special needs children with whom the author has worked. Each chapter includes a section that is presented as if the child were speaking. Mr. Stripp assumes the emotional and cognitive role of the child and presents what he believes these children would say if they could speak for themselves.

This powerful approach gives each child a new opportunity “to be heard” and for the child and his/her experience to be reframed with more compassionate eyes. It allows these children without a voice to be viewed with respect, and for their behavior to be reinterpreted as communicative* and intelligent rather than disruptive, meaningless, and even disgusting. In fact he states, “Often the behavior that teachers, administrators, aides or assistants find so disturbing is behavior that is a direct result of their actions and/or words”.

For instance, in one chapter a boy named “Adam” who has cerebral palsy hides his shoes every day before school. As irritating as this behavior may seem, it was the child’s way of communicating that he did not want to go to school and in his case he had good reasons. The author states that the child was often left in wet/soiled diapers and strapped to a chair most of the day (and that’s not the worst of it). Amazingly, this behavior stopped once his parents took him out of the school and sent him to one that provided appropriate care and educational opportunities.

The majority of the book is a series of horrifying accounts of mistreated and misunderstood special needs children. Only at the very end does the reader see statements about people besides Mr. Stripp who are committed to compassionately caring for and educating special needs children. Until reaching this section the reader has a picture of public special education in the US that is terrifying. Perhaps he does this on purpose, painting such a bleak picture so that the reader does not discount the importance and severity of this book’s message. However, I think the book’s message is so powerful that it would have come through even if he had included a broader viewpoint of special education and its problems in the initial chapters of the book.

We all need to remember and acknowledge that not all school programs, assistants, and people handle our children with ignorance and cause for concern. Nonetheless, some do, and the author is calling for awareness and change where negligence exists.

Mr. Stripp offers several potential solutions to ensure a better level of care and education for non-verbal special needs children. He proposes that school districts set standards of education and experience for special needs aides that allow them to support special needs children appropriately. For without adequate training, he believes both the staff and students are put at risk. He also offers some simple tips that school personnel can use to evaluate their interaction with a child. Finally, he suggests the widespread use of web cams (I have mixed feelings about this) and proposes that schools have an open door policy that allows parent advocate groups to stop by unannounced.

I believe our society can do much better to safeguard our special needs children and their educational opportunities. Any improvement has to begin with awareness and an acknowledgement that a problem exists. I commend the author for his courageous commitment to some of our most vulnerable children. He has taken steps to bring awareness to the profound problems that exist in special education and has brought them to the forefront in a way that cannot be ignored.

*The idea of behavior being communicative comes from a quote in the book on page 7.

Follow-up Articles & Resources:

Here is a link to an interview with the author on Autism Live.

Please see our “Books, Bloggers, & Other Media Resources” section for more resources related to cerebral palsy and special needs children.

Here is a link to the Mr. Stripp’s website where you may learn more about him and his efforts.

Shortly after posting this entry we came across an article that Wrightslaw posted about the use of cameras to protect special needs children from abuse.

Special Ed Ratings: A website designed to give parents in the US an opportunity to offer feedback on their local special education public school services.