Now and again we watch The Food Network's Iron Chef America, a game show that features a celebrity master chef like Mario Batali or Bobby Flay battling a challenger in "Kitchen Stadium." Their task: to make the best five-course meal in just under an hour using a featured "secret ingredient" such as trout, or flank steak, or parmigiano reggiano. The secret ingredient must be featured in each course. A panel of food experts judges "Battle Trout" or "Battle Flank Steak" or Battle Parmigiano" based on criteria such as flavor, originality, and presentation. The Iron Chef secret ingredient can result in some strange dessert outcomes -- beef-infused ice cream, beer meringue, and sea urchin custard are just a few.
Sometimes I feel as though autism parenting is a lot like the timed kitchen stadium battle. Your kid will only be this age -- whatever the age is -- once. So the time limits are clear and the pressure is on. You know the clock is ticking. The master chefs you're up against can be renowned experts, school personnel, or board of education officials. The stadium is the school district, the Department of Education, or for some fierce contenders, federal court.
Right now I'm appearing in Iron Mom: Battle "Least Restrictive Setting." One or two people at Sweet M's school have long believed that she should be in a more restrictive setting -- a 6:1:1.
Sweet M attends a state-approved (and therefore partially publicly-funded) private school for children with learning disabilities. Some school administrators believe that she (and/or the school) would be better served if she were elsewhere: at a school where all or almost all the children are on the spectrum.
Those of you who've been following this blog know that this has been an ongoing issue: every other year for the past six years we have looked -- in earnest and with open minds -- at other settings and determined that they would not be appropriate.
We find ourselves in the odd position of making a mainstreaming argument even though she is in an LD school. Because the school has a much greater variety of children than a school for kids on the spectrum would have, it more closely approximates a mainstream setting than other places do. Maybe it's not mainstream, but it's a much larger tributary than the stream they'd like to send her to.
The rules of this special education game -- the secret ingredient of "least restrictive setting" -- have left us with an outcome for Sweet M that seems a lot like flank-steak infused ice cream or urchin custard. This is not exactly what you'd choose to make for dessert if you weren't working within a narrowly defined structure with very specific rules.
But, of course, the differences are clear: in Iron Mom America the battle isn't just an hour, but year in and year out, and the real stakes are much higher than just a tasty meal and haute cuisine bragging rights.