Introspection on Education

Currently in Australia, parents are scurrying to find the right educational setting for their Autistic children beginning school for the first time. Or for their children changing schools for the first, or second, or third time, as previous educational settings have become untenable or unworkable or detrimental to their child’s mental, emotional, social or academic health. Or all of those things. Our school year follows the calendar year, and I know many, many parents who are searching desperately to find the perfect fit for their Autistic poppet for the new year. Or, more accurately, who are searching for an adequate educational fit for their child.

I can’t help but think that the worry that this decision causes, and the burden that parents carry — the weight of whether their choice of school environment is the right one for their child and what harm it might do if they’ve got it wrong — speaks volumes to the state of education here.

Ostensibly, it may not seem like writing about schools is a good fit for me, since I homeschool my children after I withdrew them from school, and have no real intention of re-entering them into the mainstream (or any other) system unless they desire it (which, for the record, at this time they vehemently do not). But I am almost as passionate about all of the other Autistic children who find themselves in educational institutions as I am about my own children. And the fact that so many parents agonise as to whether to send their child to a mainstream environment or to a specialist support unit or school, the fact that I know parents who are selling their homes to relocate to the only school they’ve found that might cater for their little one’s particular needs… well, that is both tragic and emphatically unsatisfactory.

Truth be told, I find it deeply troubling, if not downright abhorrent, that many parents of Autistic children have become resigned to holding the educational system to the standard of ‘not actively damaging’ because their efforts of trying to achieve excellence for their children have been thwarted again and again. It’s not parents’ fault. It just speaks to the reality that, when the hope for an exceptional education for our children has been dashed time and time again, when that optimism has been ground away by years of benign neglect or outright bigotry, all that is the left is the ‘hope’ that our children’s schools do no harm, even if they do no good either.

Perhaps I sound bitter. I am. I think a systemic failure to see my magnificent, creative, unique boys as anything but wonderful is a travesty. But that’s not the point I want to make here. If I could fix – even just bring attention to the existence of – some of the pervasive and shockingly damaging practices that are prevalent in schools (usually born from ignorance or misguidedness rather than conscious prejudicial intent), other Autistic children may just fare better at school than my children did.

In Australia, our educational system is far from inclusive. Unlike in some other countries, we still have segregated Autism support units attached to schools, as well as specialist Autism schools. To be fair, there is such a gargantuan gulf between our country’s current mainstream educational system and truly inclusive schooling that parents need alternatives for if (and, all too often, when) mainstream schooling fails or harms their child. Or, indeed if they can’t see their children succeeding in mainstream in the first place because, well, did I mention that most mainstream schools are still so far from inclusive? So currently, those units and specialist schools serve a purpose, at least until we improve our mainstream services. And whilst we know that research shows that mainstream inclusive schooling is best for everyone and is preferable to segregated disability-specific support units or schools, many parents rightly question whether this research is applicable to them and to their child’s lived reality, when their local mainstream school may be a very far cry from inclusive.

The reality in Australia is that we have a very long way to go to make education optimal for our children. Inclusive education — the ideal that everyone is educated together — is not really even on the political and social agenda in Australia in any significant way, and we’re not really even discussing what might make mainstream schooling more inclusive. In a country that still questions climate change and has an abysmal record on many social justice issues, inclusive education is simply not a compelling or politically expedient topic here. 

And, just to clarify, by inclusion I mean genuine inclusion for our Autistic community, based on Autism acceptance, a commitment to allowing Autistic children to claim their Autistic identity and to learn and socialise Autistically, and the deep pedagogical knowledge to implement methods of teaching and learning that suit Autistic neurocognitive processing. I don’t mean the superficial use of ‘inclusive’ to designate the unsupported integration of our children into mainstream classrooms, or the attempted assimilation of Autistic children to become more typical, more ‘normal’.

I should feel more optimistic about our children’s education: there are inspiring individuals and individual schools doing good work to make educational settings accepting and respectful of Autistic neurology and functioning. But I’m not especially optimistic. Or at least, my optimism is for my potential grandchildren rather than my own children, because the road to inclusion seems very long and rough indeed.

Perhaps my pessimism stems from a flaw I am observing in the current trend in educational thinking as it’s actually practised in schools. You see, there’s a glaring oxymoron in the current educational approach that tempers my confidence in the prospect of an educational revolution. Fairly recently there has been a shift in educational thinking that sees teachers identifying and utilising Autistic strengths and interests in the classroom. Awesome, I hear you say; surely not too much to complain about there. And yet… whilst I have absolute faith that some teachers are using Autistic strengths and interests to maximise our children’s enjoyment of, and engagement with, their education, there is simultaneously a certain undercurrent that makes me uneasy. Strengths and interests are too often used to counterbalance a deficits-based or pathologised approach to Autism. A teacher’s acknowledgement of Autistic strengths is too often laced with a paternalistic and patronising nuance, offered as a consolation prize, offered from a place of condescending superiority.

I don’t want to suggest that this is done consciously (or at least, not done consciously by everyone). But simply mentioning Autistic strengths doesn’t negate a deficits view of Autism. Benignly identifying strengths whilst concurrently treating Autism as a ‘disorder’ (however it may be identified in the DSM-5 or ICD-10) undermines the very idea of strengths. There appears to be a decidedly self-congratulatory mood among departments and systems that so many teachers have finally recognised the truth of Autistic strengths. And yet, the parents I talk to suggest that if you scratch beneath the surface, the idea of strengths is regularly used as a veneer to mask more prevailing, deficits-based approaches to Autism. As I said, I’m not sure this subtlety is always intended, but it strikes me that too many educators (and indeed researchers for that matter) still hold onto a basic ableism that sees Autism as different and less. But they reconcile themselves to that (very probably) unconscious bigotry and make it more palatable by what is necessarily a superficial reference to Autistic strengths.

Recently I was at a conference about Autism and education. The people who came to that conference were those who are dedicated to understanding best practice in education for our children. There were excellent speakers, inspiring presentations. And yet… I suppose what I really hoped for at the conference was to hear about how schools are supporting Autistic culture to flourish, about how they are respecting Autistic ways of socialising, about how they recognise that accepting their Autistic students exactly as they are, and accommodating their needs appropriately, is vital to each child’s self-acceptance and self-esteem, not to mention their learning and intrinsic motivation to attend school. I had hoped to hear those things in stereo, from different sectors, states, schools. It wasn’t reasonable to expect to hear those things, of course. As an Autistic mother, my priorities for education are not necessarily aligned with the priorities of schools and departments. But I had hoped that maybe somewhere I might hear someone offer the ‘silver bullet’ that would put us firmly on the road to genuine acceptance and inclusion. I had hoped that the number of speakers advocating for acceptance would outweigh those still holding onto Autism as disorder. I had hoped for more teachers, more principals, more learning support staff to attend, to show me that schools know that there is more to do, and what they currently do is simply not enough.

I’m not sure what my point is here. Expect excellence for your child? Accept nothing but the highest quality education? Unite our voices to demand more, better, best for our children? Or maybe just the simple reflection that, ultimately, however far we’ve come, there is so very far still to go.

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