Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Education and Autism

It's World Autism Awareness Day.

Autism and pervasive developmental disorder is a personal part of my life because one of my nephews, a lovely boy named Henry, was diagnosed with autism when he was five. I have to admit when he was a toddler I only saw him a few times because we lived far away, but I no sign of any disorder at that time. But by the time I moved closer to home in 2009 it was obvious that Henry had communication and attention issues. He lives in Ontario where it takes a shameful amount of time for diagnosis and to get access to treatment. In Henry's case, over three years between the diagnosis and action. Three very critical years. It is lucky for Henry that he is intelligent, taught himself to read by the time he was 5 years old and that our family as a group works very hard at fostering communication skills. But that isn't enough. 

What was missing in Henry's life was the school component/social component. Henry, prior to enrolling in the school he's in now, was having a great deal of difficulty in school. JK and part of Kindergarten was completed in a regular school, where they believed he needed to be sent to a behaviour class (this was prior to the diagnosis.) They also didn't believe that Henry had taught himself how to read. The rest of kindergarten and Grade 1 was completed in a Waldorf type school environment. A small class, focusing on life/social skills, where Henry thrived but also began to wonder when he was going to a "real" school. Since there was no nearby Waldorf school and given Henry's wish to go to a "real" school he transferred to a local school at the end of Grade 1. The principal was welcoming and so was the teacher. Grade 2 was great. Henry still had problems, as he doesn't like to write or do math and he has no understanding of social boundaries and touching. But his Grade 2 teacher knew he had ability and pushed him to do what he didn't like and so did his aide. But Henry didn't have any friends and in fact a fellow student broke his collarbone by picking him up and throwing him to the ground. Grade 3 (this year) has been not so good. A different teacher, a different aide, and the inclusion in his class of the student who broke his collarbone has made this year in this particular school much less successful. Henry is easiest to deal with when he is left to read and so that is what they have been doing. Once again, there is talk of sending him to the "special class" since he has not improved in regards to understanding social space and stopping the inappropriate touching of people (he really likes belt buckles and belly buttons).

So why am I hopeful for Henry? For a number of reasons. At Christmas, Henry got to play with his cousins for three weeks (they live in Australia, so we do not get to see them often). They are the same age. He noticeably improved in his social behaviour because of that interaction. And in February, after three years of waiting, Henry was finally been placed in a school where he can thrive. Three days a week he is in the new school and two days a week he is in his old school. Suddenly he is excited to go to the new school. He has friends, real friends. And the work he is being requested to do appeals to him. The government will help fund this opportunity for one year but I hope for Henry's sake it is for longer. 

My questions are many. Why does it take the Ontario government so long to diagnose and provide services for autistic children? Why do teachers, all teachers, not have training in how to create a truly inclusive classroom?  Why is special education taught as an ABQ (Additional Basic Qualification) instead of part of basic teacher training across Canada? My sister showed me the potential training the Ontario government was going to originally give to Henry's regular classroom teacher prior to making the decision to offer him a place in his new school. It was a booklet. That's frightening. 

Finally, why do we continue, as a society, to judge what is "normal" and what is not? One day I hope we will stop marginalizing anyone who is not like us or is different. As teachers, we should be at the forefront of creating a warm welcoming space for all of our students and demonstrating that different is ok. It is interesting how social media is becoming a vehicle for shrinking our differences. Witness this link that Sheri Edwards sent me a few days ago. I am sharing it here. Thanks Sheri!

P.S Another link Sheri sent me!