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Story Publication logo November 15, 2017

Sending My Autistic Sons to School in Morocco


Visitors to the beach on the Atlantic Ocean in Mohammedia, Morocco, play in the surf as the sun sets. Morocco has emerged as a moderate leader admist the political and social turmoil of the rest of North African and the Middle East. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.

Morocco is on the verge of transformation, maneuvering to be a financial and political leader in...

The author's 5-year-old son gets a kiss on the cheek from a kindergarten classmate on his last day of school in Morocco before returning to the United States in November. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.
The author's 5-year-old son gets a kiss on the cheek from a kindergarten classmate on his last day of school in Morocco before returning to the United States in November. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.

MOROCCO — The night before my son started kindergarten in Morocco, I woke up in a panic. In the morning, my 5½-year-old, who is autistic, would go to school in a language he did not understand.

My son had only started speaking about a year and a half ago, acquiring language through intensive therapy. It had changed the course of his life. He had thrived in an inclusive preschool classroom at our neighborhood school last year. But although he is now bilingual in English and Arabic, our family doesn’t speak French, the language of instruction at the small private school in Rabat where I had enrolled him and his 3-year-old brother, who is also autistic.

I was essentially making my children nonverbal again, and in the early morning hours before I had to wake them to get dressed, it felt cruel, particularly for my new kindergartner.

When I brought my autistic sons to Morocco for three months, I knew it would be impossible to duplicate the supports and resources that we have at home in Chicago. But I had just earned tenure and wanted to spend my first sabbatical in the country where they were born. I had adopted my sons from an orphanage in Meknes in central Morocco when they were infants, and neither had been back to their country of birth before this trip. This was a chance not only for them to live in Morocco but also for me to do meaningful professional work around autism and to report from the country through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

I knew the boys would be okay a few months away from therapy, and neither has complex medical needs, but finding the right school, finding any school in Morocco that would accept them with their autism diagnosis was a challenge I had not anticipated.

I used the U.S. State Department’s list of sponsored schools for children with special needs as a guide and found one option in the capital of Rabat, where we currently live. My son is not in a self-contained classroom in the United States and does not require a personal aide, which would automatically bar him from being admitted to the American School of Rabat.

But after reviewing his diagnosis and the accommodations he is legally required to have in the United States through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the school declined to admit him. The Canadian MapleBear school also refused because of his autism diagnosis. The British-Moroccan Khalil Gibran School offered to admit my son but wanted to place him in first grade based on his birth date. My son is an intelligent boy with an obsessive knowledge of geometric shapes and patterns and an incredible memory, but he still struggles with scissor safety and basic social interactions. I knew he shouldn’t skip kindergarten.

Since my children were diagnosed with autism, my older child at almost 3 and my younger son at 2, I have not shied from telling people that they are autistic, both as a way to explain behavior and to get the support they need. I assumed that honesty would help when I started applying for schools in Morocco, particularly at a place with American educators. I was wrong. The idea of inclusiveness does not necessarily exist in a private school abroad, even one with an American curriculum. The problem is particularly acute in Morocco where autism is still a stigma and where children do not have basic rights to an education despite constitutional protections. Public schools can — and have — barred Moroccan children with special needs from an education.

Through my own network of Moroccan friends, I found a small, private preschool and kindergarten with a long-standing policy of accepting autistic children. I had my older son’s U.S. accommodations translated into French and sent it with a video of the boys that the director had requested. I knew she wanted to see how autistic they were before agreeing to admit them. They are both verbal now, which in Morocco means they aren’t really seen as autistic. They have skills, acquired through U.S. government-funded Early Intervention and VBA, or Verbal Behavior Analysis, that puts them in the league of the elite, the lucky children in Morocco who have access to the limited and expensive services that exist.

But like nearly every child with autism in Morocco, they do not have equal access to education or, in many cases, access to education at all, which is the subject of a documentary I am producing. Our experience is guiding my research and understanding about what it’s like to be autistic in Morocco.

The author’s older son at his school in Morocco. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.
The author’s older son at his school in Morocco. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.

My kindergartner is able to attend school overseas because I pay for an aide, or “shadow,” as he is called here. Ismail is a college student and musician who speaks English and is able to help my son communicate in the classroom and guide him through the structure of the classroom. He is not trained in education or in autism therapy, but he is willing to learn. Without him, I could not send my son to school.

Michelle Grappo, an education consultant based in Denver, said many international schools try to be inclusive but their resources are limited. “Even in the U.S. our schools struggle with meeting all children’s needs,” said Grappo, part of mother-daughter team who provide resources for parents of children with special needs. “So it’s no surprise that they struggle abroad in communities with far fewer resources.”

Frankly, even though I knew it would be easier for my sons to adjust to a school where instruction was primarily in English, I also wasn’t keen on sending them to an elite international school with children (and even more importantly, parents) who probably never have shared a classroom with a child with special needs. I am keenly aware that my child does not have a right to attend a private school.

Sarah Taylor, an associate professor of social work on the East Bay campus at California State University, also enrolled her then 9-year-old son with Fragile X syndrome in a local public school during an academic fellowship to Australia last year. She initially wasn’t sure it would be the right fit because he was placed in a completely self-contained environment, not the more inclusive one he has in at public school at home in California. “All of the support classes shared a big play yard with large trampoline and adaptive bikes, indoor play area with many toys, sensory room, restrooms, and laundry room,” Taylor said.

But it worked.

“Our son felt very safe and happy in this school-within-a-school setting,” she said.

My children are thriving at their local school, too. But it’s hard. I am the lone resource, relying on my own advice, my own strategies to help them adapt. A few weeks ago, my older son reverted briefly back to some old behaviors like screaming and hitting when he got frustrated about not being able to communicate. His young aide is fantastic, but I am overwhelmed sometimes that I am supposed to have all of the answers to why my son is behaving a certain way. Nevertheless, we got through it, coming up with a plan to address the behavior, and it stopped.

At a recent festival at the school, the boys clapped and danced in the middle of the party, playing chase around band members and taking turns swirling around a tent pole. They stopped every now and then to embrace, holding on to each other, these two little twice-transplanted Moroccans with their American accents and Chicago Cubs hats. They looked right at home.


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