Last year, Pauline Hanson made a speech in parliament where she called for autistic students, and students with additional needs, to be segregated and taught separately in specialist settings. Her argument being, teachers are being stretched and cannot meet the needs of all students in the classroom, leading to under-performance from “normal” students in mainstream classes.
Understandably, like many other parents, I was ropeable upon hearing this. My two autistic kids have thrived in mainstream. Gilbert is currently holding his own in a gifted and talented class in high school – he’s certainly holding nobody back.
Meanwhile, it was only yesterday I learned that Matilda has received an offer of a place in a performing arts class for next year.
This continued stereotypical belief, that autistic students are often troublemakers or a cause of distraction in the classroom, is personally highly offensive to myself and my kids.
However, after my initial fury died down a little, I became more disheartened by the many people who seemed to agree with her.
In this case, Pauline Hanson isn’t the problem facing autistic students. She is a loud and divisive voice who attracts more airtime than necessary. But she’s only echoing what so many others believe.
Intolerance is the real problem here. Intolerance of difference.
Intolerance emerges from fear and misunderstanding. It’s human nature – if you don’t understand how something works or if you don’t know why it’s different, you tend to view it with mistrust.
The same goes for people who are different. They tend to be misjudged, misunderstood and misrepresented by those who don’t know them. They are pushed to the margins of society and not given the same opportunities as others. I’ve seen this first hand – I bet you have too.
This is the reason my son went on BTN recently to talk about albinism. He wanted to share his condition, in his own words, so others could understand. He wanted to address the myths and show others that he is just like them. He didn’t have to do this but he wanted to face intolerance head on and spread awareness and understanding.
This is the reason I write about special needs parenting, autism and albinism here. To share my experiences with others while, hopefully, increasing understanding and compassion in the community.
Ironically, for Senator Hanson, it’s the very practice of educational segregation that has led us to this point.
So many people, particularly in the older demographic, talk about autism being everywhere these days. Do any of these comments sound familiar to you?
“In our day, you never saw it.”
“Something must be causing it.”
“It’s a symptom of bad parenting.”
“Pity you can’t smack the naughtiness out of kids these days.”
There’s a very good reason why we never used to see autism and other disabilities in the community. Most kids in those days would have been institutionalised or kept hidden. It’s that simple. They would not have been sent to school. So, generations of those before us had little exposure to difference in their formative years.
I believe this is a big reason why intolerance towards any difference (visible, behavioural, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) is such a problem these days. Difference has always existed but unless you’ve been personally touched by it, you can never truly understand it or recognise the opportunities and abilities beyond the perceived difference. (There is also the jerk/dickhead/tosser factor when it comes to intolerance but I’m not going to go into that here as that’s impossible to change…)
I’m very lucky that my first educational experience with my son was in a reverse integration preschool. Here, the preschool was set up for children with a vision or hearing impairment and community children were invited to join in with them. It was a caring, supportive and appropriate way for Gilbert to begin his education journey.
There are benefits to all sides in such an arrangement. Students with additional needs are supported in a setting that is designed to cater to their needs. The teachers are trained specifically to support them. Special needs students have the chance to interact and learn from their community peers. And the community kids are introduced to difference from an early age. It’s a win for all concerned.
Personally, I’d love to see if reverse integration could work in the primary and secondary education sectors. I know most kids would benefit from visual timetables and routines in the classroom, not just those on the spectrum. I know most kids would appreciate a quiet calm down zone for those moments when it all gets too much.
I know all kids would learn better with movement breaks built into their day. I know they would also get a lot out of meditation and other mindfulness activities. More hands on learning would also be of benefit, particularly to those whose learning preferences lean towards doing rather than watching.
If inclusion is not working as well as it should be, maybe we need to go back to the drawing board and seriously consider options such as reverse integration classrooms. Currently, 20% of students in NSW are classed as having a disability, and that figure is set to grow. Many more students face challenges stemming from emotional, attention, mental health, socio-economic and family safety issues.
We need to understand, there really is no such thing as a “normal” student anymore (if there ever was).
Investing more strategically in the emotional needs of all students might yield big dividends and go onto benefit all areas of society. Heck, we may even see some improvement in student academic outcomes as well.
For the moment, it needs to be recognised that the benefits of inclusion flow to all students in the classroom, not only those with special needs. Mainstream students are given the chance to interact, support and learn from students of different abilities. They learn compassion, kindness and tolerance from an early age which means they have a fighting chance of growing up to be more tolerant, accepting and compassionate members of the community.
I posed this question in a post a few weeks back:
“Imagine a world without the stigma of disability. A world where everyone was valued on their individual merits, not on perceived deficits. A world where ability was celebrated, in every form. A world without expectations.
In this imaginary world, don’t you agree that your own experience as a special needs parent would be different? Don’t you agree you would feel happier and more content in a less judgmental and more inclusive world?
Wouldn’t the path less travelled be more inviting, welcoming and supported without the burden of expectation?”
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that disability, difference and diversity are not seen as positives in society. But, what if that wasn’t the case? What if we made the effort to appreciate all abilities? What if we started to embrace difference in all its forms, instead of fearing it, or even worse, pitying it?
With greater acceptance and understanding, intolerance would be a thing of the past.
Senator Hanson isn’t the real problem facing autistic students. Intolerance is.
Let’s hope the inclusive educational practices of today result in a more tolerant society tomorrow.
Because further segregation is not the answer. Senator Hanson and her supporters are living proof of that.