Wednesday 15 August 2018

Autism, School, Exclusion. What's fair?

Classroom seen as a mass of confusing colours and shapes

The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person.  A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students.  Deafening noise.  The stench of different smells.  The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes.  School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.

In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to.  It's so hard.  My brain doesn't want to tune the rest of the noise out.  Apparently I've been asked something, but I miss it.  The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me.  The intense stares overwhelm me.  The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin.  Only six more hours of hell to go.... only six....

Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without 'time out' to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day.  Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.  

Some will respond by 'shutting down', e.g. going quiet and still, as if they are ignoring the teacher and the instructions.  It's a desperate emergency strategy by their overloaded brain, allowing it to stay at least partly functional.  

Others will go eventually into meltdown, if not allowed escape or respite from the hell.  An involuntary state, in the same way that an epileptic seizure or  a diabetic incident is not a 'choice'.  It's not a display of anger to get their own way.  They may be so anxious, so utterly overwhelmed, that they will push others, flail their arms, sound angry, when in fact they are terrified,exhausted, overwhelmed.

How would you be responding, if that was your experience, day after school day, endlessly repeating?  We've turned classrooms into a hell for autism.  Fluorescent lighting. Endless noise.  Everywhere, bright patterns and overloading information. Groupwork and social time. Crowded hallways and relentless academic pressure.  Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago.  Not a hope now.  Generalising of course.  Some can cope, just about.

There's been a Court case in the UK.  A Judge has noticed that a lot of autistic pupils are excluded from school, for having meltdowns.  The Judge also noticed that some schools were doing almost nothing to help those young people to cope.  It was unfair, the ruling said.  We cannot simply exclude autistic pupils for entering meltdowns. Meltdowns are part of autism for a good number of autistic young people.

I'm personally glad of the Ruling from the Court.  Whilst mindful that of course everyone needs to be safe, the way to achieve safety is to stop hurting the autistic children.  Punishing them for responding to pain is not something any of us need to do.

What  schools need to do is to understand autism.  In understanding it, we can help to stop putting the children in pain and exhaustion.  It's actually quite easy.  And quite cheap.

Make sure your school is getting really good autism training, from autistic experts and our allies.

Make sure the school are getting really good consultancy advice about children, way before any crisis, from autistic consultants and allies.

 Notice I said 'autistic experts' and 'autistic consultants'.  People who can detect what's happening in that environment, using similar sensory systems to the pupil.  People who can explain autistic language and culture.  Yes, there is a different autistic language, a different autistic culture.  In the same way as it's important to respect the culture of children from different ethnicities, it's important to know about, and respect, autistic culture and communication style also.

I advise avoiding the use of some 'behaviour control' programs such as forms of ABA that force the child to behave as if they are not autistic.  That's not a solution.  We know from new research that it can lead to disastrous harm and suicide. The work just published by the University of Coventry refers.

Most of us, let's all work together.  Because autistic children are generally honest, generally great fun, generally fabulous young people with much to offer.  But, left in constant pain and/or fear, you'll never see that side of them.  And, excluded, their future may be as bleak as their time in school may have been.  They need you on their side.  Let's hope that Court Judgement means that schools will be given the training and the resources they need at long last.

Thank you for listening.