by Gary Spencer
“Your child is a delight to have in my classroom. Just delightful.”
These words, spoken by my son’s year 3 teacher in our local mainstream public school, took me by surprise, but they shouldn’t have. He has a diagnosis of autism.
But autism does not mean disruptive, nor does it mean holding back the other children from “going ahead in leaps and bounds in their education”, as was suggested by Senator Pauline Hanson last week in Parliament. It was possibly those words, “holding other children back”, which stung the hearts of parents of children with ASD the most.
Certainly, students with ASD and different kinds of learning disabilities can be disruptive at times, but ‘regular’ students can also cause similar disruptions. Think back to your own school days. Who were the so called ‘troublemakers’ in your classrooms? Teachers then, and teachers now, are working with a diverse bunch of children, and with far too many grey areas to categorise.
Yet, it is true that the system is still failing many of our children, and that it is therefore a good thing that these issues are being debated in the public arena. With recent Gonski education reforms going through parliament, and the NDIS being actively rolled out across Australia, the time for discussion is now.
I propose that the path towards better education and a better future for our children is not to categorise certain children and remove them from mainstream classrooms, but to empower parents, and to empower schools and teachers to work with the diversity within their classrooms - the diversity which reflects what it means to be Australian.
Ultimately, a parent or guardian knows their child the best and, as the primary carer, should be well placed to support their child through challenges. Yet parents are often caring for more than one child, trying to earn some kind of income, and feeling overwhelmed by the additional pressures of raising a child with challenges. Support in the form of more affordable childcare, counselling, and special financial support would free up parents to devote more time to their child, and to access the latest information about their child’s condition.
In addition, a close relationship between the parents and the school should be encouraged. Not all schools welcome the input of parents or have the time or resources to be real partners with them in their child’s education. This time must be found, and parents must be embraced by schools as advocates for their children.
If children with disabilities and challenges are to thrive, their parents must be empowered.
Embracing Diversity in the Classroom as a Crucial part of Education
It is now accepted that familiar characters like Mozart, Einstein, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Newton probably had ASD, and they have given the world wonderful gifts in the fields of science and the arts. Are these the types of people we wish to exclude from mainstream education?
Granted, most people, with or without ASD are not as gifted as the ones mentioned but, more often than not, children with ASD offer unique perspectives in the classroom, they can be extremely creative, and their problem solving skills can be exceptional. Rather than hold other children back, they can be an inspiration to others. There may be hiccups - even Einstein was supposed to have suffered from meltdowns and would daydream in class. But with adequate funding, teachers can be trained up and supported so that they can accommodate and “draw out” children with neurological differences to be active participants in a comfortable environment.
In addition, the very presence in the classroom of children who face different challenges, or who have different ways of thinking, is of enormous benefit to all children. The classroom is not simply a place for academic pursuits, but a place where a child is socialised, a place where students can learn compassion, tolerance, patience - and how to accept and embrace differences.
According to Pauline Hanson, students with disabilities, or where they are autistic, are generally taking up too much of the teacher’s time.
Undeniably, extra support in the form of more teachers’ aides is essential in some classrooms, for all sorts of children - some with ASD, some without it. In addition, some students with ASD do need a smaller, quieter classrooms with less noise and fewer brightly coloured posters, due to sensory issues. Some may need flexible schooling, so that they can do some intensive therapy outside of school or at home, at a time of day when they are not too tired. These supports may be for a period of time, and our education system should accommodate them.
For some children with challenges, adjustments within the mainstream classroom will make a huge difference:
“Experience to date in NSW suggests that regular class teachers who make the time and effort to develop strategies for the students with autism in their class frequently find that strategies such as the provision of structure, routine, visual supports and the teaching of social skills, often benefit other students with learning problems in the class/school and potentially all students in the school.” (1)
Perhaps even more importantly, support for teachers must extend beyond the classroom to the playground, where children who are different are often the target of bullies. Bullying is an issue which can make the whole school experience miserable for those with ASD, making a positive learning experience next to impossible. Teachers need to be given the time, training and resources to enable them to pay more attention to what is going on in the playground and to proactively deal with bullying.
With access to such training and better resources, and with a rethinking of priorities, mainstream schools in Australia have the potential to be an environment in which all children thrive.
Empowering teachers, empowering parents and embracing diversity - these are the keys. Australia has the chance of being a world leader in this field. Let us continue the debate and rise up to meet the challenge.
1. Roberts, JMA and Prior, M (2006). A review of the research to identify the most effective models of practice in early intervention of children with autism spectrum disorders. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Australia.