Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Light it up Blue

A sobering thought, don't you think?

But what if the word "excluded" didn't mean only once?

I still have a stack of fixed term exclusion notices for H, from when he was younger. Forty six of them to be precise. And ALL of them given before he was six and a half.

A full year and a half after he was diagnosed with Autism.

So what on earth is going on in our schools? Why are children with diagnosed developmental conditions being excluded for what is actually classed as ASD behaviour?

The short answer, is that despite the sterling work of the National Autistic Society, local groups and numerous parents, teachers are woefully underprepared for the children on the Autism Spectrum that they will teach. My PGCE year offered a full HALF DAY on teaching children with SEN, or "Special Educational Needs". Not enough to even go through the physical, emotional, behavioural and medical disabilities I might encounter even by name alone, let alone prepare me for supporting and teaching children with any one of them. And beyond that salient point, there is the unavoidable fact that for many, many children with Autism, mainstream school is just not appropriate. Trying to ram that square peg into the round hole was never, ever going to work.

I have learned a phenomenal amount as a parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum. I am also a qualified primary school teacher. Yet I would not be permitted to translate that experience into the classroom, or into any school.

Why ever not?

Because I have needed to be a full time parent to my sons with ASD and have not clocked up the necessary years' official experience. Which given the fact that I actually wrote every word of my son's Statement myself, is utterly ridiculous! It's a sad fact that even today, with the awareness and knowledge we have gained as a society about Autism, that parents still feel it's a "them and us" battle against the Local Authority to get their child the support they need. But I honestly don't think it needs to be that hard. There is a far more simple route to meeting every child's needs which would really be inclusive for those on the spectrum. We need to recognise that there is no round hole. 

Learning is, quite simply, not a conveyor belt for any child. If that fundamental principle can be embraced as a foundation for primary school learning in particular, then I firmly believe that the majority with additional learning needs would indeed find their way.

As a parent of children with a variety of needs I am no different from any other. OK, so we deal with medical issues, ASD, ADHD, Anxiety and a host of other problems, but giving these a name doesn't make them more relevant than another child's needs. I don't want my children singled out more than necessary, and I don't believe they should take priority in the classroom. Some children will need more support, but their needs are not intrinsically more important. We need to start valuing each and every child and their idiosyncrasies, needs and talents - and those of the families they belong in.

Gone are the days of a teacher planning a single lesson and delivering it to a class irrespective of ability or need. But equally, our teachers are not equipped, prepared or supported to be nurses, counsellors, therapists and to deliver quality lessons they can assess and evaluate. Clearly, there are some children for whom mainstream school isn't a realistic option, but if the powers that be believe the majority should be there, then the majority need to be viewed as a collection of individuals by all involved, not an amorphous group.

I'm utterly exhausted after a day at the coal face here, Chez Thompson. I have an overly anxious 13 yr old who needs to complete a History project, but cannot think beyond the bike he is saving for (as of yesterday) and with exceptional Executive Functioning difficulties this is likely to be my project.... A resentful 9 yr old who is NOT sharing his twin sister, no siree and her friend will just have to fit in whilst he acts up, and a 17 yr old desperately trying to revise. All need a different meal each time with differing dietary needs and three of them need different, multiple medications four times a day..... It's a full time job, and at 10pm my head is spinning.

But the solution is never singular. There are many. SO many. And the solutions, (plural) change by the day. The second I take my eye of any one of the proverbial balls, and assume I'm dealing with a collection of children, at least one falls apart. Small wonder a child with Autism cannot cope in a busy classroom......

But the interesting thing is, that an Autism friendly classroom would benefit everyone. Without exception. Autism is a developmental disorder - and just because your level of development has exceeded your chronological age it doesn't mean support for the previous stage is in any way detrimental.

So let's permit ourselves one small generalisation..... and it's perhaps one of the few times that you can - as a parent or teacher. Make that visual timetable. Plan for down time, ensure a calming down zone, issue traffic light cards for students to ask for help non verbally, permit anyone to use a break system - because it benefits everyone, and no one stands to lose.

You might just find the class stands to gain.

Any class is indeed a collection of individuals, there to learn. There is no clear path for learning, and no clear destination. But a basic set of tools to support those with Autism can be a useful platform for all. I want to see a clear plan for primary school teachers, properly trained to deliver supportive learning environments for ALL children, including those with Autism. That would be a real lightbulb moment. A blue lightbulb.

#LightItUpBlue - April is Autism Awareness Month

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