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A Special Ed Lawyer Who's Walked In His Clients' Shoes

David DesRoches
Connecticut Public Radio
Special education attorney, Michael Gilberg.

When he was young, Michael Gilberg knew how to make a point.

"My mother always said when I was 8, I would make a good attorney because I was good at arguing,"  he said.

He also obsessed over three things.

"I had obsessions with dinosaurs, the New York City subway... and the U.S. presidents," he said.

Obsessive behavior -- or the ability to hyperfocus on one thing for a long time -- is a common trait of people on the autism spectrum.

"The question is whether it's something productive that you're obsessive about," Gilberg said. "Fortunately, for me, I've become obsessive about disability law and policy, which is a productive area." 

He was able to combine his obsession with disability law with his ability to argue to become a special education attorney. He practices in Connecticut and New York.

A few months ago, Darien resident Jamie Zionic hired Gilberg after she learned that her son, who has autism, might have been abused at school.

“I think that’s something that a parent can never be prepared for, how to handle finding out that a teacher may have harmed your child," Zionic said. "But Michael was very calm, he made a plan, and he followed up on each step of it. Some of it, we’re still working on.”

She said she hired him because he might have a better sense of what her son went through.

“I think he understands some of the struggles, from the start, that my son faces," she said.

His slogan touches on that idea -- he says he’s “an advocate for children with disabilities who walked in their shoes.”

"I remember being very isolated, being bullied in school," Gilberg said. "I remember reading alone in a corner. I always felt a little isolated like I just didn't belong."

Back in the 1980s, when Gilberg was in elementary school, our understanding of autism was limited. It wasn't understood as the spectrum disorder we know today. Instead, autism was defined pretty narrowly -- it usually evoked images of a nonverbal child who did random and strange things.

"The supposed experts, as I said, really didn't understand what was going on," he said.

These experts labeled him all sorts of things. Hyperactive. Soft neurological function. He was placed in special education classes, but he says he was never challenged.

After third grade, Gilberg was sent to a specialized school. Expectations for him were low. In sixth grade, his social worker told his mom that he'd never graduate high school.

He didn't make a friend until he was in middle school. But then, the day before his friend's 16th birthday, his only companion committed suicide.

"It kind of pushed me to the direction I'm in now," he said. "And I didn't realize until a few years ago that the effect it had on me, that it had this deep effect on me. It was part of my motivation to be a special ed attorney.”

Two years after his friends death, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Doctors don't use this diagnosis anymore. Instead, Gilberg is considered on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Not long after his diagnosis, his life came into focus. He defied his social worker's prediction and graduated high school. He went to college, got a degree. Then he went to law school. That's when things really started to come together.

"I still have some very good friends from law school, and I think as you get older you get more socially adept, and people become more mature, they're less clique-ish," he said. "I think people are more tolerant and understanding. And I think as time has gone on, people are more understanding that everybody's got their eccentricities, everybody has their little quirks and things, nobody is -- there's no such thing as normal as I always say."

The biggest struggle in his job is trying to get school officials to be empathetic. To see his clients as valuable people, and not burdens. He hopes that his success helps show that.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.
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