Are autistic students a problem for teachers?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Last month, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson said children with a disability, and austistic students in particular, were putting extra pressure on teachers and schools and should be educated separately.

There was an immediate response from politicians, commentators and some academics. All were unanimous in their condemnation of Hanson. But was there any truth to her comments? What do teachers who work with students with a disability say?

Hanson’s comments contained a tiny kernel of truth. The rest of her comments were generalisations, inaccurate and wrong. She claimed that parents and teachers had told her that children with a disability take up too much of a teacher’s time, time that other students need. Her choice of words reveals a certain prejudice against children with a disability and a “them and us” mentality.

Children with a disability are simply children. The range and severity of disabilities is huge, just as autism varies from mild to quite challenging.

There is a saying “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism”. Similarly, children without a disability vary in motivation, ability and behaviour.

Many children Hanson would categorise as “normal” also behave disruptively and disrespectfully, taking up much of a teacher's time. In fact, overwhelmingly boys take up more of a teacher's time. Would Hanson suggest that we form special classes for them?

She claimed that “other” children, who want to “go ahead in leaps and bounds are held back by those ...” and there she began to flounder, probably realising her choice of words were objectionable and again revealing her prejudice and ignorance. She ended her speech with: “We need to get rid of these people because you want everyone to feel good about themselves.”

I have taught children with autism and some were disruptive, while others were highly motivated leaners, sometimes challenging those students without a disability who were undermining a lesson.

The kernel of truth in her generalistaions is that funding for students with a disability is woeful. Politicians have designed a classification of disabilities to determine how much funding students deserve and if they qualify for education support aides.

These aides come into the classroom to assist students and may perform tasks, including explaining class work to an individual student, answering their questions, physical assistance and emotional support. They are an integral factor in helping students with a disability to achieve success.

Sadly the classification system comes with an arbitrary cut-off point, which denies many students the funding required to give them a “level playing field” in their education. The lack of education aides can mean that teachers performing these tasks have less time for the whole class. The poor funding levels are a disgrace and show that Hanson is not the only politician who lacks compassion for students with disabilities.

We stopped the separation of students with a disability from mainstream schooling because society finally recognised that it was unjust. It also maintained a culture of ignorance and discrimination. However if we refuse to adequately fund schools, the integration of students with disabilities cannot be successful.

Many students find it embarrassing to have an aide, because it clearly marks them as different to their peers and they frequently refuse to work with the aides. Other students are still ostracised because of their disability and find mainstream schooling difficult and lonely.

Some are even bullied or harassed or attack others including teachers or aides. Some parents refuse to acknowledge that their child has a disability and refuse the educational support available. For some, attending a special educational setting is the best place.

Special schools need more earnest investment as well. Teachers in such settings have very challenging jobs. Students who have serious and complex needs can be violent; others require considerable patience and attention.

These issues highlight the complexity involved and consequently the commitment required from politicians who decide how much money and how many resources schools should get.

Under the Gonski 2.0 model, public schools will now only get 20% of federal funding while private schools, including catholic schools, will get 80%.

If only all the politicians who were quick to condemn Hanson were as energetic in campaigning for increased funding and educational resources for all students with a disability. That will be the day that Hanson's comments are completely inaccurate and foolish.

[Mary Merkenich is an Australlian Education Union state councillor and a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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