Today a reader of my blog asked if I’d read a recent article written by Rachel Smalley, up on the Newstalk ZB website. The reader was not happy about what she read there, and having read it myself I also feel the article needs a public reply. There is just so much wrong with the way Smalley frames the debate she is looking at, that it is hard to know where to start, so I might as well begin at the beginning.
Smalley’s article starts off with the recent example of the child with Aspergers and dyslexia, who had been expelled from school because of an incident with a skateboard. She uses this example to launch into the question of whether it is a good idea to mainstream children with special needs. She uses two examples to frame the debate: One where an autistic child was changed enough to be just like their peers at kindergarten and therefore was successfully integrated into mainstreaming, and another example where an autistic child was so demanding and difficult that a teacher quit her job and the children in the class suffered. Her concluding remark is we need to rethink mainstreaming special needs children.
From the very start, she takes the view that two worlds – the one of normal children and the one of children who don’t fit the norm – are naturally separate and will enter conflict when you bring them together: “Worlds can collide when you merge children with special needs into the mainstream education system.” This is a sadly loaded statement, one that presumes these two groups of children don’t fit or belong together at the outset. The fact is people with disabilities and differences are in every community together, in shops and on streets, in families, playgrounds, work-places and in doctors’ offices; everywhere. The idea that they belong together should be the starting point of any discussion, surely, rather than the view-point that the current division is somehow natural and that change to the status quo of divison is what needs justification.
The two examples Smalley uses to form the basis of her view that “sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” are written up in such a way that is fundamentally distorting and really quite upsetting. Yet I honestly think Smalley has no awareness of what is so wrong with how she makes her points, so I’ll try to explain what is wrong with her examples.
First, the example of a child who learnt to fit in: She describes an autistic preschool child, who was “dysfunctional” because “[h]e didn’t socialise, he sat on a chair, he rocked back and forth, and he slept where he fell.” If that is a description of dysfunctional, then I can tell you that parenting is frequently a dysfunctional experience. I know what she’s trying to describe and how much it can matter though, so I’ll give her that much, but the way she expressed herself that really upset me was this: “He is now a fabulous, functioning little boy who’s social and interactive. You would never know he’s autistic.” Ouch. He’s fabulous now but he wasn’t before, and all because you can’t tell he’s autistic anymore? It’s clear that Smalley has a very limited understanding of the complexity and varieties of autism, and she appears to have a very negative view towards autistics. Let’s move on to the second example though, because her opinions don’t get better as we go along.
The second example is a high needs autistic child that had “dreadful behavior,” she says it was a “nightmare.” A nightmare for whom you may ask. It’s abundantly clear she hasn’t considered who is really in hell here, and why. The child would scream and yell and be violent she says, and goes on to give examples where it’s obvious the child wasn’t receiving adequate classroom support and supervision, though she doesn’t seem to pick up on that vital point. The child clearly wasn’t being adequately prepared for changes in routine, wasn’t being supported with coping strategies when things went wrong, was clearly under huge amounts of stress and deeply distraught, but Smalley’s conclusion is “you had 22 mainstream children whose education for a year was disrupted and adapted to appease the needs of one special needs child.”
Instead of arguing for better classroom supports, better understanding and training for teachers, a more adaptive and sensitive classroom situation, a more tailored response to a deeply distraught child, her conclusion is we need to rethink mainstreaming. I find that astounding. She takes a situation where a child is being seriously let down by the mainstream classroom, and instead of insisting for change to the classroom to be a better environment, she thinks it shows that mainstreaming can’t work for these children. It’s almost bizarre, but it is predictable considering the tone of the rest of the article.
In all of that though, there is another major point that I think she is overlooking: The autistic child is not choosing to act poorly, when autistic children act out that strongly they are typically in deep distress outside of their control. Here is the crux of the matter then, for me: What she – and many members of the public – don’t like, is bad behaviour that disrupts others learning. I get that. But you know what: bad behaviour that disrupts learning is not exclusively in the realm of those with special needs. Plenty of “normal” kids do it too, but we don’t say “see that kid with the brown hair / brown skin / etc, well they have bad behaviour and so I think we need to question whether everyone with brown hair / brown skin (etc) belongs in the classroom.”
What we do instead (what we should always be doing) is treat people like individuals: we look at why they are doing the bad behaviour – is it reacting to someone or something that we can change, that we can improve, that we can remove – before we decide the only answer is exclusion. This investigation into what can be done to improve the behavioural problem, is more complicated when it involves those with special needs, because you need a general understanding of the child’s condition to make a meaningful enquiry into the cause and appropriate response to the behaviour. But just because it requires more thought and even possibly more work to find a solution, does not mean it is not worth doing or is impossible to do.
It’s exactly that sort of attitude – that lack of consideration of the relevance of the condition and lack of flexible problem-solving – which has led to the recent court case of the excluded child with Aspergers and dyslexia. And yet Smalley uses that court case as an instance in favour of her argument that sometimes mainstreaming just doesn’t work. The details of the case that have come out so far simply do not support her using this as an example of bad behaviour that argues towards questioning the mainstreaming of special needs children. In fact, to me, it adds insult to use this poor teenager’s situation to argue for the exclusion of others.
As a final point to all this, I don’t think Smalley – or the public more generally – have an accurate understanding of how schooling is done in New Zealand for children with special needs. She says: “Is the merging of special needs children into mainstream education giving every child the best possible education? Sure, it saves money, but every child has a right to learn in a safe and nurturing environment that’s tailored to their needs.” I’m not sure what she thinks is going on – special needs children are not all being shifted into mainstream schools, not by a long shot. There are still special schools and no aim by the government to remove or shut them down right now. There are still a huge number of options for children, tailored to their needs, from special schools to satellite units, to residential schools and wrap-around support, teacher aides within mainstream classrooms, and so many other ways that education is made to be flexible to diversity. Are there some who want to shut down special schools? Sure, but it’s not happening right now. Are there children for whom no suitable education option currently exists? Of course there are, that’s why many of us fight to make education more inclusive and responsive to the true variety of humanity.
And part of that journey – that improvement of education all round – is making sure that mainstream schools are improving their practices so that special needs students can take their place in the community alongside their peers. I am of the unambiguous and firm opinion that a school which is adapting its practices and attitudes to be more accommodating to special needs children, is a school that is better for all students that attend. There is no firm dividing line between who has special needs and who doesn’t, an education system which accepts and welcomes diversity is also going to be better for the gifted students, ethnically diverse students, and anyone else who doesn’t fit some mould of the “usual.” It will also cope better when discipline and behavioural problems arise, which are hardly the sole realm of the disabled.
We haven’t completed that journey towards a great education system yet. When we do – when our schools are adaptive and responsive and welcoming and well-run – we will also have schools that successfully integrate the majority of special needs children within the classroom. But we’re not going to get there by deciding in advance that these children don’t belong in mainstream classrooms. And we’re definitely not going to get there by thinking the problems all lie within special needs children and not with lack of support and understanding within the classroom and school. And we sure as heck are not going to get there by scare-mongering with the notion that all special needs children are currently being pushed into mainstream classrooms, because that simply is not happening right now anyway (even though it arguably should be). Any debate about what we should be doing around mainstreaming and special needs children, must be had with an accurate eye to what is actually going on within the education sector, I don’t think an informed debate can happen otherwise.
I don’t think Smalley means harm, even though her article does harm. I don’t think she set out to misconstrue reality, I just think she did inadequate research into autism, special needs, and the state of the current education system. I would like to think that when we engage in the debate that she calls for – about mainstreaming and special needs children – that people like her will hear our arguments and realise that moving towards inclusion really is in the best interests of all students; that our children are not a threat, they are an opportunity for everyone’s betterment. That there is nothing inherently impossible about integrating our classrooms to better reflect societal reality; the disabled, the different, the differently-abled, are all around us anyway, they are part of our world and deserve to be. We can recognise that some students may never fit well into a mainstream classroom, but we need to know and make sure that the reason they don’t fit in is not simply because we gave up on the disabled. We need to be sure that when a child is excluded from a school, it really is because it was the best and only decision left, rather than the current situation where our kids are so often not even allowed in the front door.
We need to reply to pieces like that written by Smalley, and we can only hope we are listened to with the same open-mindedness, patience and willingness to learn, that we hope to get from mainstream schools someday too.