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.