When I was at primary school in the mid to late 90’s autism in a mainstream school was virtually unheard of. I remember the day we were called into assembly and informed that a boy with autism would be joining our school, and how we were to behave towards him. Fast forward to 2015 and that same school has over 11 children diagnosed with autism in attendance, not to mention many who are being considered for diagnosis. They have transformed the old music hall into the special needs room, equipped with sensory toys and a quiet space full of light for struggling children, mostly autistic, to escape the mayhem. Another school just down the road I worked in briefly is currently supporting a child who cannot talk, needs toileting assistance, and is often kept on reins. He is totally disinterested in joining his class for anything other than music for short periods, so it is the job of his TA to support him throughout the day. Whilst in some of the special needs schools I’ve entered I’ve witnessed children who are very capable being held behind in a classroom full of severely disabled children. So when are special needs best met in special needs schools and how much can mainstream schools support special needs children?
I support a fantastic 6 year old who has ASD. He attends a mainstream school and is considered to be high functioning. He can talk, has a vast vocabulary and imagination, and I think is secretly a little genius in hiding. However, he is difficult to engage due to his often loss of reality and his pathological need to control situations and not have anything demanded of him. Consequently school has become more of a holding pen for him, the teachers work on just keeping him in the room and calm, with very little expectations of work being produced. You can imagine the strain having lots of children like this can put on a school, as each will need constant 1 to 1 support, although whether they get that is another matter. This is not important though, because what is important is that the child is in the best environment for them to grow and reach their full potential. My 6 year old I would consider a borderline case, yes a special needs school would allow him to run around and do all the things he wants to do in a safe space, but he is a highly intelligent child who if he could settle into school life would do very well. Plus he hates loud noises and special needs schools are highly chaotic and unpredictable. The boy I supported who could not speak however, I could not see was benefiting from mainstream school at all. It seemed almost cruel to have him in reins and constricted all day long. I imaged how much he would have loved roaming free in a special needs classroom. He loved switching the lights on and off and in these schools there are plenty of sensory toys and energetic staff to keep up with him. Most importantly he would be surrounded with support staff and the right tools to help him develop.
I struggled with school at times. I recently found my report cards which reported at most 70% attendance. I eventually stopped going to school altogether at 14 as the days were too stressful and overwhelming. As a mute and anxious 4 year old starting school, crying all day because I was separated from my mother, I feel a special needs school would have given me that extra support I needed. However, because I wasn’t diagnosed or identified as having any real problem, I was pushed through mainstream education just like everyone else. With this I learnt I had to fit in and I learnt how to cope with the things I struggled with. Noise and mess and other children, whilst they stressed me out I could just about handle, because I had to. As much as I feel this led to significant mental health difficulties in adolescence and adulthood, I do not regret being put through mainstream schooling because of the better education I received and the social exposure and friends I made. Many of which are still close friends now. At 14 however, I had just about had enough. I was instead home schooled by the local education authority, which worked perfectly for me. I got 1 to 1 support and spent the majority of my time reading and teaching myself; in a routine I was comfortable with and away from the stressors of teenage life. The massive downside was my lack of social development during these years.
So you can see how for kids with special needs all methods of education have their downsides as well as their pluses, and it is really about finding what works best for your child. I believe the greatest crime a parent can commit is forcing their child through something that is not right for them, because they are ashamed of the alternative or want their child to be different. Trust me, this leads to very unhappy teenagers and often mentally ill and under performing adults. Because individuals on the spectrum differ so greatly, it is hard to say what is right, you really have to go with instinct on this and trust it is the right thing. They need to be happy and calm, and this comes with adequate support and a safe environment. If mainstream schooling can offer this then great, but if the child is severely unhappy here then there are alternatives to be considered. Special needs schools cater for such a wide spectrum of children, and in my opinion high functioning autistic children who are quite sensitive may struggle here. I find myself overwhelmed entering these schools even as an adult. But there are special needs schools which cater specifically for autistic children dotted around the country, and each school is different so it is important that all the options are considered. Some mainstream schools have special units attached to allow children to integrate between special educational needs and mainstream teaching, which I think is great. Children have to spend so much of their life in these institutions it’s important to find a good fit if the options are there.
Many parents may struggle to get their children the specialist help they need, and this is largely because the schools are so overrun with special needs children, time and money are affected. However, it’s important that if you feel your child needs extra support or is struggling that you speak to the SENCO of the school to discuss ways forward. Statements are a great way to get your child the help they need, but this involves your child being monitored and evidence being collected to support the application for a Statement, which can take some time. Once you have this though then so much more help is open to your child, both in mainstream school and also special needs schools.
As an adult who vividly remembers how difficult school was as an autistic child, all I want is for other autistic children to be listened to and be placed in the correct environment. A child’s confidence really does soar when they are somewhere that makes them happy, and as a result they are motivated to do their work and listen to the adults around them. Mainstream schools, special needs schools, or even home schools: successful and happy children have come out of all of these. What is right for one child is not for another, and just because a child has a particular label does not mean one type of schooling is more appropriate than another. Your child is not failing if they need to go to a special needs school, if they are happy then they are most definitely succeeding.