Thursday, October 2, 2008
Some days you feel as though you are winning. Other days it is as though you’re being bombarded from every angle and you just cant do anything right. I’m on the phone to a mum informing her we have had some problems with her son kicking another student. I like to get in early and pre-empt the return call, as I know mum will be on the phone as soon as her son gets home and tells her the details. Mum understands the situation and I book her in for an interview tomorrow morning. We have come a long way together. From the days of school refusal because a student in his class didn’t share the same opinion he had on a computer game. To refusing to eat anything at school because the other kids called him “cheese disease”. I’m relatively new to the world of Autism and Asperger. When I was at University they prepared you by sending you out to a Special School Unit to get some hands on experience. They had you read scholarly article after article, written by boffins squirreled away in universities, on ways of managing students with Autism. I’m sure I wrote over 30 000 words outlining how I would meet the students needs, all backed up with reference to the latest developments and theories. Something you quickly learn when you meet a child who has Autism is that they are individuals. Generalisations go out the window with many of the theories and interventions. I have come across some students who are happy to shut themselves off from everything. At lunchtime they escape, with their blazer over their head, in a book or a hand held computer game. Whilst others want to be out on the football field or hanging around the staff room talking to people. Some are very self absorbed in class and are reluctant to share. Whilst others, accidentally touch on a topic of interest and they could talk everyone's ears off. The common factor amongst them all is their social interactions, or difficulty with. If you have a child on the AS spectrum and you’re reading this then you are all too familiar that children with Asperger and to a varying degree Autism are very self- absorbed. Everything is about them, to the vexation of their peers. I find it difficult to actually define my job title at times as I do so many different things. I am Head of Year Eight and Nine and I teach History. I help run our learning support department and assist the school’s Special Education Needs Coordinator. Basically I’m the go between home and the teacher. Being caught in the middle is like acting out the fable about the man with his son and donkey, going to the market. You can’t keep everyone happy. A line from a parent I spoke to last week sums up the issue “I am all for children with Autism coming to the school, but where do you draw the line when it starts to impact on our kids. How many exceptions are our children supposed to make”? This is like saying "I am racially tolerant but id hate for an ethnic family to move into my neighbourhood". Start to read through the stories i post on my blog and you soon get a picture of the parents im talking about. Something that still stumps me when dealing with Autistic students is that nothing is ever straight forward. The most notable case of late is of a student in Year Nine who has Asperger. I made reference to him in my opening paragraph. “Cheese Disease”, the name kids called him last year, and the reason he didn’t want to go to school. I was appalled at this and jumped on the students straight away. Later I hear that they called Andy this because he was bragging about the fact that he could eat his packed lunch of cheese sandwiches instead of the compulsory school dinners, which the students hate. I find that Students with Autism are often coupled with other disorders, the most common being Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In Andy’s case he will only eat cheese, Jam filled biscuits and potatoe smiley faces (of a particular brand, mum has to keep old packets in case the packaging changes). This plays havoc with his health. When I tried to explain to the Head of the Kitchen why he wasn’t having school dinners, he wasn’t having it, saying, “well if I was his parents I’d just say eat it or have nothing”. There is no arguing with these people who have such a shallow insight. I didn’t bother to tell him that his mum had tried this and the result was Andy being admitted to hospital after not eating for three days. Now back to the issue of the complaining parent. Andy had been given two pet rats for his birthday and he had taken photos of them in to show his classmates. Andy persists with showing the pictures to everyone whether they want to see them or not. The next day I get a phone call from Andy’s mum saying Andy is refusing to come to school. I have her bring Andy in and she tells me the kids have been teasing him. They said that they didn’t like his rats. They said that he looked like his rats. They said that rats are vermin, so Andy must be vermin. I’m actually surprised the Year Nines know the word vermin but this is what Andy’s mum says. I attempt to get to the bottom of the story as I’m shocked to hear that bullying had taken place. I’m more shocked at the kids saying these things. As thankfully, bullying is quite rare at the school. I take one of the students from class and question him about the comments. He freely admits saying those things to Andy. This makes me angry. I begin to question why. It emerges that Andy constantly bragged about the rats and at every moment he had the picture out showing people. When someone said the rats were vermin this only fuelled the bragging. When someone said, “put the photo away I don’t like rats”, this only made him get the photo out more. Eventually the comments had come from pure frustration. Now here is my problem. The names were quite hurtful and did constitute bullying. But at the same time they had come as a response to the behaviour of Andy. I called the parents of the student’s at the centre of the bullying accusation and I was met with the response. “My son has an aversion towards rats so I can defend his actions”. I could also see the parents and students’ point of view. A Year Nine student hasn’t developed the social decorum to hold back on insults when faced with frustration. Their response to the bragging was to reply with an insult. For Andy this is confusing as he doesn’t see his behaviour as bragging and can’t understand the response the other students have to something he sees as deeply interesting. So here develops another problem. None of the other students want to be around Andy because he is annoying and if they say anything to him about how annoying he is they will get into trouble. Compounding this Andy knows this also. So he does not want to tell on anyone even if he thinks they are bullying. This is just one incident this year with one student. The school I work in is in the Independent sector and draws students who would benefit from a smaller setting. Over the past two years our clientele with additional needs has grown exponentially. 90% of the students have some form of learning difficulty and approximately 20% are statemented. For those unfamiliar with the U.K. system, Statementing is a process of identifying need’s and provides funding based on that need, so the students can attend mainstream schools. As you can imagine the people who hold the purse strings and give statements are tight and many parents especially the ones that are not well educated or familiar with the system miss out. This is a whole other issue and I wont get into it at this stage. In the U.K the fazing out of special schools has meant that SEN students are integrated and have access to the same education and opportunities as all children. Most schools have a special education coordinator and a team of classroom assistants. To give you a scale of the support we have 35 members of teaching staff and 26 learning support assistants. Many old teachers here despair at the influx of SEN students we take in, but looking at the successes we have it can’t be denied that the small setting with adequate support is the way to get the best out of these kids. I look back over my post now before publishing and i hope it does not offend. I hope parents can see the dilemma when faced with integration. My next post here will be about a boy I'm trying to help who says inappropriate comments all the time. Help with this one will be much appreciated. so stay tuned. Matt writes a regular blog of his own about his teaching at Trials In The Life of a Teacher. Feel free to make comments and offer him advice. On the same hand if you need advice on education and Autism feel free to drop him a line.