Give ASD children the school provision they need

The Times today (Saturday 13 June 2009) has an article about children with special needs being excluded from school. It points to a recent survey showing that 55 percent of parents of children with autism saying their child had at some point been unofficially excluded from school.

Other figures in research by the paper show that although children with special needs make up a small proportion of children in schools, they make up a huge percentage of those excluded. The problem is worst in primary schools, largely because of a lack of resources.

I think that it is not just a lack of resources but the fact that schools are increasingly expected to cope with children with  emotional and behavioural needs as well as autism, with little or no extra training. A mainstream teacher should be just that - a teacher who teaches mainstream children. He or she is not trained to be a special needs teacher and should not be expected to be one just because the government says so-called 'inclusion' is key.

The situation is made worse by the lack of specialist places for children with special needs. With the closure of many special schools and lack of places for children with conditions such as Asperger's Syndrome in the first place, these children often end up with an inadequate education because they have difficulty accessing the curriculum in the same way as their 'normal' peers. They also have problems making friendships because they are perceived by other children as 'weird' and who wants to be marked out as being friends with the weird kid? This leaves the ASD child socially isolated, sometimes bullied and learning that they have no place in 'normal' society.

There are those whom I have heard say (including the Schools Minister Sara McCarthy-Fry), 'Well, they'll have to mix with all sorts when they're grown up, so school is a good training ground for when they're adults.'  This makes me incensed; so, they should get used to being friendless, excluded, shunned and bullied because it's going to happen to them as adults? Is that what they would want for their children? Secondly, it is not true that they are likely to mix with all sorts of people when they are adults. We all live in fairly small mini-societies and communities where we tend only to meet people broadly similar to ourselves, unless you are someone where it is your job to mix with all sorts of people such as those in public life or public service (note the word 'public'). This is hardly the likely career path of someone with ASD. Unless of course, they get the proper training when they are young.

If they can't get this specialist training at mainstream school because of a lack of resources and expertise, where are they going to get it? At a special school? Don't be silly, they've either been closed or are over-subscribed.

It then falls to the independent sector to fill the gap. These independent special schools usually cost a lot of money because that's what it takes to provide suitable specialist help to give these children a shot at a reasonable life. I say, if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes and the Local Education Authorities should cough up and pay unless they're willing to find capital resources to invest in their own facilities.

There are good state special schools that can provide for children with severe special needs. But it is those with higher-functioning autism who are left to cope in mainstream school with or without support because there's nowhere else in the state system for them to go.

My boys, both with Asperger's, have experienced both mainstream and independent special school. I have nothing but praise for the teachers in their mainstream school; they did their best given the resources and time they had at their disposal. But it was not enough and I am sure they would be the first to admit it. Now at their independent school, they have the vital small class sizes they need, specialist teachers, access to Speech and Language and Occupational Therapy where needed, counselling when required and mentors who keep in close touch with them.

I was told by one SENCo at a good secondary that they could cope with children with Asperger's and sometimes she didn't have a problem for 'months on end' until something kicks off and it all goes pear-shaped. At our school, this never happens. Things never get out of hand because they are not allowed to. It's a small school and teachers know what's going on with the boys so things can't kick off in the first place. That's the difference.

My boys are getting the social and key skills training they need to help them cope with the 'real world' as well as a good academic education. For them, you can't have one without the other. I had to work hard to get the LEA to pay for one son and I'm still waiting on the outcome for funding with the other. Until then we're paying £12,000 a year ourselves which is not easy to find.

The point of 'inclusion' is to be included in society when they are adults, not stuffed into a one-size-fits-all classroom in the hope that they may learn social skills through osmosis. That's politics at its worst, where dogma overcomes common sense and expert opinion.

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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5 Comments

  1. J

    A very thought provoking post.

    I feel incredibly in that the mainstream school my son will go to (in their nursery from September and in reception the year after)has a specialist asd unit attached to the school, children diagnosed with asd have varying amounts of time within the unit and spend the rest of the time in the school itself. They have regular occupational and speech therapy. I have an elder NT daughter already at the school and I’ve seen how they have various protocols which they have for all the children, all the nursery children are taught sign language (heavily Makaton based I think), my daughter knows more signs than I do and I’ve been on several signing courses. In reception they have a seperate ‘club’ to take children, not just the ones with asd but any of the children having trouble settling in, sharing, making friends and teach them socialisation skills in a smaller setting. I just feel incredibly blessed that my daughter is there now (because it also has an incredibly good academic record) and that my son will be going there. As you can imagine, it’s heavily oversubscribed and we moved within the very small catchment area, just by chance, a year before my son was born, so we didn’t even know we’d need the school’s unique services.

    However I worry deeply about secondary school, our area has (and at some distance away) several mainstream secondary schools that can take children with Asperger’s (it’s not known yet whether my son is high functioning or Aspergers) but from the provision I’ve heard about, my gut feeling is not happy. I’m a qualified secondary school teacher and I thank my lucky stars for that to, as I think I’d seriously consider home schooling him at that point and I’d feel more confident to do so. As like you say, there’s better provision in the state system generally for children with very special needs than those children who can technically still ‘fit-in’ to mainstream.

  2. Carla

    I too feel like you. After struggling in more traditional settings, we successfully litigated an out of district placement for our son. He has benefitted greatly from the specialized school. He is learning and implementing strategies for successful social interaction, instead of continually facing the barbs of his “typical” classmates. He feels accepted and included in his more restrictive environment, which is a vast improvement on the exclusion and ridicule he faced in the supposedly superior “mainstream inclusion” environment.
    The bottom line is that school is for education, not social experimentation. I don’t care how socially adept he becomes now, down the road if he can’t read or write he’ll be a social outcast as an adult.

  3. Jacky Kerr

    extremely interesting but what is not explained even the teachers who have had training still can not cope with children and are getting kids with adht and aspergos syndrome into the crimminal justice system because thy cannot or not been trained properly to cope with these kinds of children,

  4. diane

    a very interesting article. I am currently at the beginning of this very long road of having my son aged 5(not yet diagnosed) accepted in his school. I have already been asked to remove him from one school after only 5 months, the school being both underfunded and ignorant ( in my opinion) of children with special needs. On a lighter note he is now at a mainstream school who are both helpful and supportive to us both and we are working together to help him fit in, in his own way.

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