Do Autistic Children Belong in Mainstream Classrooms?

Welcome! Welcome one and all to another Deep Monday post!

If you’re not an Australian, you’re probably reading the title of this blog post and are a bit confused about where this is coming from. On the other hand, if you’re an Aussie, you’re probably unfortunate enough to know exactly who Senator Pauline Hanson is; and if that’s the case, then you’ve likely heard precisely what Senator Hanson thinks about the integration of children with autism into mainstream schools. I’ll admit that it’s a weird way to start the week, but hey, what are Deep Mondays for?! So we’re going to talk about this!

Before we get onto the meat of the tale, let me quickly sum up my personal feelings: I strongly dislike Pauline Hanson. I possibly even hate her on the basis of the One Nation Party (and numerous other things). I think she is a cruel, ignorant, narrow-minded, and bigoted woman. I’m ashamed to call her an Australian. And I’m even more ashamed that enough Australians agree with her views to enable her to become a Senator. It makes me sick.

But now that that’s out of the way, the premise of this blog post is Senator Hanson’s recent comments about the schooling system, and specifically the place of children with autism within that system (here’s a handy article–and another–if you’d like to see what I mean). Her predominate argument is that the presence of children with autism in a classroom negatively affects the learning experience of other children, who are ‘held back’ by having children with ‘special needs’ in their classes, and straining teachers and schools. She has argued that children who require ‘special attention’ should be removed from the mainstream classroom and put into a ‘special classroom’ where they can receive the extra attention they deserve.

If one examines these statements superficially, it is easy to concur with Senator Hanson’s perhaps poorly-expressed point. After all, if children learn or process information differently, then it is easy to argue that they should be supported with a system that will enable them to learn at their own pace, to be ‘protected’ from the possible ostracisation or bullying of their peers, and to be given the additional attention they may require. But such an assessment fails to take into account the larger picture. As Penrith MP, Emma Husar, succinctly notes here when talking about her autistic son, Mitch:

“It is difficult, sometimes, but Mitch is surrounded by a great group of neurotypical kids who role-model to him how he should behave, how to use language effectively, and how to learn to lose and not be so competitive. And from him, they learn how to be patient and that being different is OK. This is not the 1960s: we no longer just segregate people who are different, we include them.”

It is self-evident from Husar’s statements that there have been clear (and significant) benefits for her son in undertaking his schooling in a mainstream classroom. It is undeniable that he, and other children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), learning difficulties, or other neurological or physical differences, will require a different investment of time and energy from the schooling system. It is also likely that there will be parents who, on a case-by-case basis, may find that mainstream schooling is not feasible for their child. What is not right, however, is that autistic children should not be given the option and the help to be integrated into, and supported in, mainstream schooling if it is possible and sustainable for them, their families and the schooling system. (After all, there are plenty of ‘challenging’ students who do not exhibit any of the above mentioned circumstances: are they, too, to be excluded?)

Of course, this is a situation which requires evaluation by the federal government to ensure that resources are available to enable this, and perhaps that is what Senator Hanson is clumsily trying to convey. Purporting to be driven by concern for the ‘other children being left behind’ as the result of having autistic children in the classroom, Senator Hanson is worried that the average Australian child is being seriously disadvantaged, arguing that “We can’t afford to hold our kids back: we have the rest of the world and other kids in other countries who are going ahead [in] leaps and bounds ahead of us.” But what I want to know is, what forms the basis for this statement? What are the signs of other kids overseas being ‘leaps and bounds ahead of us’?

When are we going to talk about the benefits of diverse and integrated classrooms for all children? Children who do not have disabilities will inevitably benefit from interaction with children who do; it is a vital opportunity for privileged children to be exposed to and learn about those who may not learn or experience the world in the same way that they do. It provides neurotypical children the chance to understand the diversity present in our world, to learn how to interact with and engage with those who are different from them. In short, it provides all of these children—the politicians, teachers, doctors, artists, writers and leaders of our future—with a better understanding of the importance of all people from all walks of life and with all kinds of personalities, perceptions, similarities and differences. Rather than seek to segregate children with autism, neurological divergence or other personal circumstances that may require additional time/attention, we should be fighting for better funding to support their integration into mainstream schools. All children attending Australian schools should be adequately provisioned for in order to allow them to succeed and thrive, and in this very narrow comment, I do agree with Senator Hanson: we need to continue to fight for better funding and organisation for our school system, to ensure that Australian children are given every possible chance to succeed in life… Be they neurotypical, or autistic, they are Australians, and they should be supported in the same way as any other Australian child, to enable them to become the best possible people they can, and thus brighten the future of our nation.

Any other path is folly.

–Ana.

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