I have been really heartened by the recent press attention towards the abilities and achievements of autistic people. While the majority of the nations press applauds the achievements of autistic ‘superpowers’ there are, however, thousands of autistic children being systematically failed by the rigid and underfunded education system.
Greta Thunberg, Jack Monroe and Chris Packham have demonstrated clearly how necessary it is for the world to have autistic thinkers, bringing non-conformity and quest for justice to our daily lives and steering the world progressively forwards. But for every autistic person who has achieved success there are hundreds if not thousands of autistic children and young people who are failing to thrive in our society because of an educational system that has simply failed to support even their most basic of needs. It is startlingly clear that the world needs more Gretas and we, as a nation, must nurture the right environment for non-conformist thinkers to flourish; this must begin with a fully-funded education system that is inclusive for all autistic students.
Our government’s policy of austerity has targeted the most vulnerable within society, including children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Our local councils have been ravaged by funding cuts leaving many Local Authorities unable to provide any suitable education for autistic children, let alone an education enabling them to thrive. It has become increasingly common for mainstream schools to “off-roll” or exclude children who cannot bend to fit into the current inflexible system and who require specialist input.
My autistic son struggled throughout mainstream primary school. Despite being identified as ‘gifted and talented’ the only notable progression throughout Key Stage 2 was his crippling anxiety, which eventually led to him being unable to attend school for the majority of Key Stage 3. His GCSE years have been cobbled together by online learning and a minimal package of medical needs tuition that covers the basic subjects only, offering nothing additionally to support his interests and passions. As his GCSE examinations approach the gaps in his education are becoming strikingly apparent as he battles with both content catch-up and revision. Unsurprisingly this is doing nothing to raise his self-esteem. Nor is it enabling him to envisage the remarkable contribution that he has to offer the world. His potential, academic and otherwise, has been utterly disregarded by this government.
In our Local Authority, there are no placements that meet the needs of academically gifted autistic children with sensory differences. There are a few expensive placements “out of area” but, of course, our cash-strapped council furiously gatekeep access to these.
Even if we were able to source the perfect, sensory environment for him the current academic pathway of GCSEs and A-Levels are still notoriously difficult to navigate for an autistic mind. Consider the compulsory subject of GCSE English Literature: full of metaphors, idioms and analogy, none of which are easy to decipher for a mind that functions best when people say what they mean. Combine that with executive functioning skills that may operate in an alternative way: my son finds it impossibly hard to generalise and apply knowledge in a differing context, a skill that is required in order to access the higher GCSE results.
His retention of facts however, is remarkable. In the same way that IQ tests can be culturally specific and subsequently not a true test of intelligence, many core GCSE subjects are designed with bias towards a neurotypical mind. They are not inclusive by design and so it seems unfair to me to assess students who are neuro-divergent with the same tool. It certainly does not enable all students to demonstrate their individual strengths and so leaves many young people to consider themselves failures before they have even fully embarked upon life.
My son has managed to retain high aspirations for himself – he wants to study at university and he wants a useful career. I am just unsure how this will happen in the current climate of funding austerity. And this is one of the many reasons why I will be marching for an increase to SEND funding on 30 May, as part of the SEND National Crisis March.