ARTICLE: Education system failing students with autism (The Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2015)

Education system failing students with autism (Original article posted at the Sydney Morning Herald)

By Chris Varney

Nothing could illustrate the need for April 2’s World Autism Awareness Day more than the revelation that an autistic child has been “managed” in a cage-like structure at a Canberra school. As night set on the United Nations’ day, the story began to trend. Twitter briefly lit up with people’s shock. I wish I was “shocked”. The truth is, I am not.

I do not know the family or school community affected. But I do know the story points us to a national education system that is significantly underperforming when it comes to catering for kids with disabilities, including autism. Australian Bureau of Statistics data tells us 86 per cent of students on the autism spectrum report facing “difficulty” at school.

Schoolyards can be a microcosm of the wider community. This widespread “difficulty” is undoubtedly a factor in the overwhelming 81 per cent of Australians on the spectrum who do not have a post-school qualification. And the 58 per cent of Australians with autism who are unemployed.

The problem is few teachers are aware how to channel the strengths of children with autism. You cannot blame them. Their own schooling modelled a “deficit” view of kids with “special needs”. Their training scarcely covers what a “disability” even is.

The cage allegation requires us to look first at schools and then broaden our focus to community attitudes as a whole.

Across the board, we are getting it wrong when it comes to understanding neuron differences such as autism and disabilities more generally. We write off autism as a deficit, not a strength. I know this because I am on the autism spectrum and because of widespread stigma, I did not tell a soul until I was a young adult.

When I disclosed, people told me that I could not be on the spectrum. I was a Monash law student. I had good references. I had been a youth representative to the United Nations. I did not look anything like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in the film Rainman. How dare I connect myself to autism.

No two people on the autism spectrum are the same. But every person on the spectrum has strengths that can be channelled in their social interactions, community participation, education and employment.

I have met kids on the spectrum across 140 schools. I have seen some great practice and some terrible practice. I have found that the strengths of students with autism include our intense focus, memory retention, attention to detail and, for some, visual/linguistic perception. Often, these strengths are specialised around certain subjects. When I was nine, I had no care for my brother’s interest in AFL, but I could tell you everything about Europe’s royal families.

It can be tough for teachers to discover every child’s individual learning needs. However, my teachers, with the support of their colleagues and my network of parents, siblings and family friends, did take the time to discover my strengths. Their time made all the difference.

I certainly tested their patience. My kindergarten teacher had to gently drag me across the floor when I refused to re-enter the classroom. My second grade teacher had to change the student newsletter to accommodate my ramblings about royal families. My Year 8 SOSE teacher had to repeat instructions several times to keep my detailed brain on track. My Year 12 English teacher had to let me move into her office. My law lecturers had to draw pictures for me to understand legal principles. I never “followed the crowd” with my learning.

The difference between my schooling and the schooling of many young people on the spectrum is that my school took the time to build enabling structures – visual aids, adjustments, prompts, reminders, recognition – to play to my strengths.

It can be exactly the same in the workplace. My last employer looked past my label and made me a senior manager, because he was prepared to play to my different strengths. Today, I run a business that employs young adults on the spectrum to mentor students on the spectrum. My staff with autism, ranging from high-functioning to severe autism, are my secret weapon. I am constantly experimenting with the right structures to support them.

I know that when my experiments work, the focus of my staff can make the intangibles, tangible. At a macro level, people with autism can be the same asset to an Australian economy that must prepare to support an ageing population with a shrinking workforce.

I am not shocked by revelations of cage-like structures in classrooms, because so many ineffective structures are in place for anyone with autism, largely because they are not given the time to show people who they are and what strengths they have. In the wake of World Autism Awareness Day, I encourage you to give time to kids with autism and help Australia get it right. Everyone will benefit.

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