Last week I said goodbye to a class full of 7 and 8 years olds and a staff room full of friends and colleagues. For the last two and a bit years I’ve been working in a mainstream school mostly with a small group of children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) centred around one particular boy who has Autism and speech and language difficulties.
Special needs are in the news all the time at the moment due to amazing support networks and charities that keep it high on the agenda to try and secure help and understanding for people with conditions that are very difficult to understand. Autism in particular has become the latest fascination across drama, documentary and comedy – The A Word, Young Sheldon, Atypical and Are You Autistic? are just a few programmes that have explored this condition and have helped to bring it to a wider audience.
Special educational needs and disabilities is a very broad term and within a classroom it can include children with dyslexia or mild social difficulties to those with severe behavioural issues who regularly attack other children and staff and global delay which means they may be four years behind their peers in learning and development. It’s a massively complex issue and I certainly don’t have all the answers but neither do the many experts I’ve met either. This article is my mind trying to make sense of what I’ve seen and learnt:
DIAGNOSIS AND THE CIRCLE OF ‘NO’
There are more children being diagnosed with Autism or ADHD than ever before and seemingly at odds with this there are also more children waiting to be diagnosed than ever before. If you have the means you can go private, if not you may face an eighteen month wait (or longer) to be told something you already know in the hope that a label will open the gates to support that you desperately need. For many it is the start of the journey towards getting that Holy Grail the, EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan) this is a legal document put together by experts across all fields that detail what the child needs to support their learning and care.
Local Authorities seem to be resistant to EHCPs as all extra care costs extra money. Parents ready for help are often caught in a circle of ‘no’. Your child may be deemed too high functioning for a full time one to one, too violent to be managed in a mainstream school, in the wrong county for a suitable special school or so good at quietly masking that they are completely ignored because the teacher is busy dealing with another child who has just bitten her. It seems that a family often needs help but doesn’t qualify for it until they are actually in crisis and even then they may be told they are having the wrong type of crisis.
LEARNING FOR PARENTS
When parents find out they have a child on the spectrum they are often sent on parenting courses which seems insulting as they have a child with a disability, they are not bad parents. However, if your child’s brain works differently you’re going to have to parent differently and more and for longer than you ever imagined. You are going to need energy in bucket loads because what works one day won’t work the next and you’ll feel like giving up but you’ll start again because you know that you can help your child reach their own personal potential. You’re going to have to set aside what you value as an aspiration because your child may not want a big birthday party or to be on the school council, they might want to just play Minecraft. You will have to fight for everything and then you’ll meet someone ready to help but you’ll fight them anyway because you’re so used to being in that mode.
You will smile and say that you wouldn’t change a thing and your child’s difference is a gift while just wishing you could go to the Christmas Fair like other families or have just one full night’s sleep. You are doing your best, you are told you need ‘you time’ but how is that even possible? Put it on the schedule? Oh to not have a schedule!
You are learning all the time and your child is changing all the time. At least on the parenting courses you might pick up that thing that will work for you and you’ll meet other parents with a shared experience. Dare I even whisper this? It’s is human nature to feel a little lucky when you meet someone worse off than you so don’t ever begrudge yourself that.
The little boy that I have been supporting is from a loving family. They struggle with his condition, he does not fit into what they hoped and dreamed and sometimes they’re tired and angry but they pour love into him and teach him when he behaves in a socially unacceptable or unsafe way. He has the most wonderful manners – even in the midst of a massive meltdown he will say, “No thank you!” to a fiddle toy and “Please!” for the paperclip you’ve confiscated because he has straightened it out and keeps putting in his mouth. No child is born with manners, he has been taught them by his family way before he came to school.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE A BAD PARENT?
Not everyone is going to like this, but some children with Autism are born to bad parents. I’m afraid it’s just the law of averages. Social media groups often give support which ranges from “God gave you a special child because he knew you were strong enough to take it” to “Yr doin yr best hun u luv them kids”. Maybe, maybe not. If you’re upstairs with a bottle of vodka and a known child abuser while your daughter with ADHD is trying to feed your Autistic son Haribo for dinner, you’re not being a good parent. If you shrug and say “He’s got autism” when your child runs behind the counter at the pharmacy and grabs bottles of random pills, you’re not being a good parent.
Just to be completely clear, I’m not saying that bad parenting causes Autism or ADHD, it doesn’t. It would also be wrong to assume that every child with Autism is born into a secure and loving family.
What we do know is that children who suffer from neglect are more likely to have special educational needs and those that suffer abuse often have behavioural issues. A lot of children under the SEND umbrella have issues caused by neglect and abuse not by their brain being wired up differently.
My friend is an orthodontist, she sees neglect first hand and early on in the mouths of under tens full of grey and yellow teeth with gaping holes. She asked me if anyone ever tells parents that they are not doing a good job and I had to say no. The school where I worked offers lots of support to families but like most professionals we lean towards being positive. Do some parents not know that they are doing a bad job? Have they not heard that coke is really bad for teeth? That reading a bedtime story is a really good idea? That taking them on ‘dates’ to strangers houses is really dangerous?
“In an age of information how can you not know this!” Teachers, NHS and social workers may scream into the abyss.
IS MAINSTREAM ALWAYS BEST?
The local authority will tell parents that all schools are able to support all children with all special needs, anyone can see that this cannot be true. Sending a child to a special needs school costs more money whereas support in mainstream usually means sending in experts to give the staff methods to use which usually falls to the class teaching assistant to implement.
I’m a little biased but in my experience TAs teach phonics, maths, social skills and whack up a display with their left foot while clearing up little accidents with their right, some have 12 years experience with children others have PhDs in Engineering. When a child has special needs, behavioural issues or both a class TA can either spend the day following that child around trying to get them to do some work, stop them getting anxious and prevent a meltdown or they can work with small groups of children who need extra support with their learning so that they have the chance to attain alongside the rest of the class. That is the choice. Your SEND child could well be in that small group that needs extra help. Whatever the TA is told to do, certain children will not get the help they need to achieve their potential and this happens everyday. What do we need? More money, more training, to stop this obsession with trying to make one place work for every child. That would be a start.
All children on the spectrum are different and when schools, families and experts work together so many children with special needs can flourish. However, despite what you are told by a local authority and despite your rights as a parent in law, mainstream might not be the best place for your individual child. You might then be in the position where you have to fight for a place in an over subscribed special school because that is what is best for them.
DO SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN HELP OR HINDER THE CLASS?
Children can be very accepting. The little boy I have been supporting rarely appears engaged, wanders around the classroom stepping through and sometimes on his classmates sat on the carpet and makes continual noises. The children just accept him, most of them block out his mutterings better than the adults in the room. Sometimes the teacher has to teach around or over him if he’s decided to lie on her chair. Sometimes they ask me why he can have Play Doh for completing two sentences and walk around with bare feet, I tell them his brain is a little different to theirs and they seem satisfied with this. When he does engage and enthusiastically joins in his classmates love it! He once retold the story they were working on from start to finish, loudly, in front of the whole class to rapturous and genuine applause.
So, does having him in the classroom benefit the other children? It definitely makes children more tolerant and maybe if I’d had someone like him in my class I wouldn’t have found some of my previous bosses so unfathomable. I’ve learnt that when he can’t get over the fact that he was not in his usual place when the whistle was blown; when I can’t allow him ‘fix’ the photocopier and when another child wins a prize it is exhausting for me but it is so much worse for him. I’ve learnt patience when doing plus one in a small group for the third week in a row and revising the ‘all’ sound for the tenth time in phonics. Without a doubt the children I have worked with have made me a better person.
I have been in classes where large scale meltdowns have interrupted learning on a regular basis and the room has to be evacuated to keep the children safe. This affects all children differently, for some it causes anxiety, school refusal and stomach problems while others think its funny and exciting.
Some children who show autistic traits in a low level way are easier to teach but actually more difficult to integrate because they are not so extreme. Not taking turns, hording all the pencils, breaking rulers and making constant tapping or humming noises irritates the children around them much more than someone shouting ‘Cricket’ for ten minutes. However, it could be argued that in the future they will be better equipped to sit next to the noisy eater or the constant chatterer when they go to work and let’s face it we’ve all been there.
All children have needs but not all children who cause problems in the classroom have special needs. What happens when you have someone in the class who can sit under a table for maths and get a sensory toy rather than a detention? A few of the children who would have been known as ‘naughty’ in the olden days will copy this behaviour to get the same treatment. If they’re bright enough, and many are, they will pick up on the key words like ‘issues’ and ‘anxiety’ and secure themselves special iPad time from a well meaning visiting expert.
This is problematic on many levels. We now have children who are pushing the boundaries and testing what they can get away with (like children have done since time began) moved into the group of children with learning disabilities. Not only does this put a drain on scarce resources but gives a manipulative child access to the groups set up for children who don’t understand social interactions easily. Sadly, a child who would have probably straightened out with consistent rules, a firm but fair teacher and a hobby like sport or drama will have their poor behaviour choices rewarded and reinforced.
LEAN ON ME
Anyway, enough of my rambles. Last week I said goodbye to a class of children and some wonderful, funny and inspiring friends and it was really, really difficult. I wanted to give my little boy something so he would remember me but I knew that this would be a terrible idea as he has to fully engage with his new learning support worker and forget me no matter what my ego would prefer.
As the head teacher started to announce in assembly that I was leaving, my little boy got up from his wobble cushion and walked towards the front of the hall and made the announcement to the whole school himself. The head let him take the floor, it was both appropriate and charming. Later, when I was given a card from the class I have seen grown from little year ones to big year threes I started to read it and got a little choked up. He took the card from me and finished reading it out like a caring friend, allowing me the time to sort out my eye leakage. It sounds silly, but on a really tricky day, after years of supporting him, I really felt like he was supporting me.
I’d love to know what you think, if you agree or disagree with any points do comment but please be respectful of other people’s opinions.