For the love of inclusion?

I thoroughly enjoyed the coffee I had with a parent of an autistic child earlier on this week. I was far less enamoured, though, with the subject matter of our conversation. I say conversation – mostly it was the poor parent relating to me what the current circumstances were for her son who ‘attends’ a mainstream school. I deliberately put attends in inverted commas – I guess you’ll soon see why.

He (the autistic child in question) has a place at a mainstream primary school.

He is very bright and frequently demonstrates that his academic abilities are way higher than might be expected for his age.

He appears to be under massive amounts of stress and it takes a monumental effort to get him into school.

While at school his ‘behaviour’ is such that he is not allowed to be within the vicinity of other children.

He is frequently barricaded in a room.

He frequently injures himself such is his distress.

When he is unable to make the considerable effort to force himself into school he is classed as a ‘school refuser’.

The Local Authority tell his parents that they have a policy of inclusion, and that he should be attending the mainstream school.

This is not an isolated example; he is not the only child in the country having this experience. I’m not saying most autistic children experience anything like this – but no child should have to suffer like this.
The dictionary definition of inclusion is ‘the act of including’ or ‘the state of being included’. This child is not being included; quite the opposite – he is being segregated in possibly the most extreme manner imaginable. In fact, the very policy of ‘inclusion’ in this instance seems to be leading directly to exclusion. I thought that the days of assuming that inclusion meant ‘integration’ were long gone – sadly, not for this child.

At what point will Education Authorities understand that ‘mainstream’ schooling is not always the aspiration? That in fact, what we should be striving for is far less tangible and yet far more meaningful – first and foremost, the well-being of the child; the education must surely come second to that and if well-being is not being met then surely there must be an acceptance that the placement is not the correct one for that child? When I deliver training for Inset days I am so often told by teaching staff – ‘we simply can’t provide the support/strategies/environment that the autistic child requires’ – at which point I tend to think, ‘well, if that is case, why is the child still here?’ It seems to me that teachers are openly acknowledging that their school – for whatever reason – is not the appropriate environment for the child – so why is it that there is so much pressure on the child and the parents to do everything in their power to continue to go to that school – and, far more importantly, at what cost to the child’s well-being? However important education is, good mental health must surely be a priority. And make no mistake – traumatic experiences at school can certainly have a longer term impact on an individual’s mental health. We know, for example, that suicidal ideation and attempts are higher within the autism population – and levels of pathological anxiety are vastly higher within the school age population compared to non-autistic peers. If simply being at school is contributing to those levels of anxiety, then shouldn’t something be done about it?

The impact of a child being forced into an environment that is ostensibly ‘inclusive’ but in reality is anything but can be devastating. And if the alternative is to brand the child a ‘school refuser’ – this sends a very clear message. The message is that it’s somehow the child’s fault; they are the one to blame; they are the ones refusing the school.

So – what is the alternative? If we are going to accept that the autism spectrum includes a vast range of individuals with differing needs, we equally need to acknowledge that those needs may require differing teaching and learning opportunities. Alternative schooling need not be expensive, nor need it be exclusionary – as the National Autistic Society note, ‘some children will be able to have a more inclusive experience in a specialist setting‘. Specialist need not be synonymous with expensive.

The point being, inclusion should no longer be measured in relation to accessing a mainstream school. So when a child is clearly not in an appropriate setting, please don’t assume that inclusion in mainstream is the ‘gold standard’ – for some children, nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Real’ inclusion should be based on well-being, equality, happiness – these matter. Being shoe-horned into a mainstream environment under the auspices of ‘an inclusive society’ without taking those things into account – that isn’t what autistic children should ever have to face. Mainstream can be ideal for some; but traumatic for others.

9 thoughts on “For the love of inclusion?”

  1. This was exactly the situation for both my sons who have Aspergers and fur numerous other children with AS and ASD that I know. Parents are fed the lie that ‘he’s so bright he has to be in mainstream’ by local authority ed psychs because they know that specialist placement will be expensive. But it’s only expensive because by the time the child gets there, they are in such a mess that they need intensive therapy before they can start to benefit from the placement and their wellbeing has been so destroyed that they need constant high level input for their remaining school career. My boys were never included when in mainstream but they were and still are in the younger ones case, valued and included in their specialist school. Both have thrived academically and socially since moving there and are becoming amazing young men. Inclusion is a myth perpetuated by ignorant and tight fisted local authorities whose sole aim is to not spend money on the children who need it

  2. When I taught in a mainstream school in OZ I found that whilst school policy claimed to be inclusive to those with disability in fact it was the opposite.

    The Principal’s motivation for ” illusion” was not based on sound motives but rather on ” being seen to be progressive'( promotion material) and in at least one case placing funding for particular” disabled” children into ” general revenue” . It took the threat from the relevant disability association to conduct an audit before it funds became available for that child.

    The scenario you describe was what I experienced and I , as an then not dx autistic, experienced much discrimination and bullying from certain members of staff and Principal.

    I agree with you Luke that the criteria to determine the suitability of a school should be based upon the well being of the child. Attitudes of the staff require attention, addressed from the position of awareness and commitment to promoting the child’s wellbeing and then , only then ” educational processes”
    as the focus of attention etc.

    Unfortunately many parents see “inclusion” in mainstream as a sign of their child’s ” progress’ or is it from one of social acceptability that removes ” stigma”.

  3. I am about to submit a response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on Additional Support Needs in schools. Your blog has captured what I wanted to write about autism and echoes the sentiments of Baroness Warnock. I would love to use it (appropriately credited) with your permission.

      1. Thank you!!
        I did submit this along with a piece by Baroness Warnock.
        Big ‘discussion’ taking place here in Scotland about the ‘presumption of mainstreaming’ for all kids with additional needs.
        The pendulum appears to be swinging.
        There is intelligent inclusion (where outcomes are monitored, parents consulted etc) and ‘unintelligent inclusion’, where kids are stuffed into schools regardless.
        Too much of the latter,

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