The Wrong Environment for a Child, by Jodie Smitten Bsc Psy. PgC Autism. MBPSs.

Hold on to your seats…. This may get a bit ranty!

I absolutely love my job, the autistic children I get the privilege to meet and get to know are incredible. I’ve said it before but it needs saying regularly; they are brave, resilient, and beautifully natured. This makes it all the more frustrating, overwhelming and upsetting when it comes to doing the hardest part of my job….. Fighting for their rights, fighting for what they need and more importantly fighting for what they deserve. This part of my job leaves me with days of anxiety and overwhelm.

What needs to be made clear is that autistic people aren’t going anywhere, in fact quite the opposite, autistic people grow up to have autistic children… Yes we literally are increasing in number…. Some refer to this as an autism epidemic! Well that’s bloody charming isn’t it! In fact it’s disgustingly insulting. What are we, some form of disease that is a threat to human kind? NO, we are a community of good, strong hearted people, people who drive change, people who invent and create amazing things. We are the best Drs, nurses, scientists, teachers, animal conservationists, eco warriors, parents, advocates …. The list is endless.

Why can’t we change the school environment to meet need?

So prevalence is increasing. I already see at least two autistic children in each class of 30… a much higher number than recorded. So why, oh why, can’t we change the school environment to meet need?

“Making a school ‘autism friendly’ isn’t making a school ‘neurotypical child un-friendly’, in fact quite the opposite…. It’s making a school child friendly.”

What ‘the powers that be’ need to know is that autistic children are the (to quote Jo Billington) ‘canaries in the mine’. They are the sensitive ones that are feeling the pressure of mainstream class sizes, increased educational expectations, behaviour policies, over stimulation,  school uniform policies… but actually aren’t ALL children starting to show signs of this?
 YES! Mental health problems in children are on the rise! Making a school ‘autism friendly’ isn’t making a school ‘neurotypical child un-friendly’, in fact quite the opposite…. It’s making a school child friendly.

Autism friendly strategies are actually all gold standard best practise for all children! What child wouldn’t benefit from smaller classes, more outside learning, more experiential learning, more moving while learning, more emphasis on emotional literacy and self-care?

School life does not reflect adult life!

A common argument I hear against reasonable adjustments is ‘they have to get used to it’, ‘we have to prepare him for the real world/adult life’.
Well that’s a crock of rubbish!

In what job would you be told you can’t use the loo except during designated breaks?

In what job would you be made to sit on a hard floor squished up next to a colleague and sing songs?

Why would a person who works best with their hands and while moving opt for a job sat still and quiet?

The adult world is a much better place for autistic people. In fact mainly due to autistic people… We can now order food online and avoid supermarkets altogether, we can work from home, we can take breaks when we need them, we can socialise with people when and how we chose to, sometimes not face to face, sometimes not with those our own age. 

What are the repercussions?

Well if you are a parent of a child whose needs are unmet, you will know all too well the impact. However if you don’t then you should…

I’m going to outline this simply and bluntly; the children I work with who haven’t had needs met in education and/or have been subjected to an environment that is inappropriate, suffer the following;

  • Self-harm
  • Trauma
  • Low self esteem
  • Feelings of failure
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Agoraphobia
  • Mis-trust of any adult outside of the home
  • Separation anxiety
  • Environmental mutism
  • Tics

Many children are unable to return to school. Even the mention of school can produce a trauma response (fight/flight). A child becomes a ‘school refuser’ which in itself is damaging and incorrect, as the child is simply in self-preservation/survival mode at this stage and so are UNABLE to attend, not refusing. It can be likened to a child ‘refusing’ to jump into shark infested waters! Or the term I often use from a parents perspective, ‘it feels like you are sending the lamb to slaughter’ (I’m not great with subtle words!).

My experience of this comes from children of all ages, already showing these symptoms from as young as 4 years old.  

What needs to change?

Surprise surprise I have a few ideas about this! I will simply list them:

  • More funding to provide ALL school staff training in autism, PACE & trauma. Up to date progressive thinking Dr Luke Beardon style training! Including MDSA’s.
  • Smaller numbers of students per class.
  • More staff who have been invested in, through training and care.
  • More pastoral support.
  • More SENCo time.
  • More specialist input, such as educational psychologist, occupational therapist and speech and language support in mainstream schools.
  • A holistic approach.
  • Environmental changes: Less ‘overstimulating’ classroom settings and layouts, moving while learning.
  • Flexible/positive behaviour policies (or just scrap them!)
  • Flexible approaches to uniform.
  • Flexible approaches to teaching.
  • More animals, nature and outside!
  • Curriculum changes: Experiential learning, Functional learning, Child lead learning.
  • Emotional/mental health/self-care education.
  • Less attainment/progress pressure (for teachers and students).

The list could go on. I truly believe that if this was how mainstream education looked, we would be seeing less children needing EHCP’s, less children needing specialist placements and less children needing to access mental health services. And most importantly, less children suffering. I know this is possible, I work with and know there are some amazing schools, SENCo’s and teachers that make this happen or try to make this happen for their students. I know many amazing people’s hands are tied by funding restraints, policies and ‘the powers that be’. The rigidity and inflexibility is damaging.

How do we make this a reality?

I don’t know! I am not great at big battles and making big change! I make small changes for small people! Well I would like to think sometimes bigger changes for children and their families. But this is BIG. I talk with many about opening a school like this, I already have a team of staff who want to work in a school like this. I wish I had as many viable solutions as I do issues with the system.

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Jodie Smitten Bsc Psy. PgC Autism. MBPSs. is a children’s well-being practitioner specialising in Autism. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.