The mood was subdued at the gates of our small Catholic primary school one afternoon in June this year. Ten per cent of our school’s students have an autism diagnosis, and for their parents who had read Pauline Hanson’s comments to the Senate that day, those familiar feelings — dismay at the ignorance and lack of empathy of some people, worry for the future, and defiant pride in their diverse children — had been activated yet again.
They have all heard similarly clueless opinions spouted before by blowhards in supermarket checkout queues and swimming pool changing rooms: autistic behaviours are just the result of poor parenting; parents seek out a diagnosis for their children because it’s ‘trendy’, and irresponsible mothers induce their child’s autism by eating, drinking, wearing, or sitting on the wrong thing while pregnant. And, of course, there is that longstanding fallacy that autism is caused by vaccinations (also briefly espoused by Hanson).
However, Hanson’s statement, ‘we need to get rid of’ autistic children from mainstream classrooms, had a particularly insidious sting to it, given that it was made by a federal Senator.
That teachers and parents of neurotypical kids have supposedly lobbied Hanson about the ill-effects of inclusive education reveals, at best, some resistance to the presence of differently-abled children in mainstream classrooms. At worst, it displays a yearning to return to the segregated systems of the past, whereby some children could be hidden, forgotten and granted a substandard education in contravention of their human rights.
It also limits and defines children to only one aspect of their identities.
‘It makes me feel sad,’ said Kelly*, the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates, ‘that people wouldn’t see our kids are more than autistic. They are amazing people with so many gifts to share.’
Even if Hanson had not been approached by a single teacher or parent about this issue, at the expense of children with disabilities she had (yet again) had a divisive effect on the Australian community.
As the parent of a child with an intellectual disability wrote to Bill Shorten, such behaviour by an elected representative, ‘…doesn’t shock me — but it does break my heart all over again. It doesn’t matter how many times it’s happened before, I feel the knife twist again’.
The present system is imperfect, but if Hanson wanted to have a positive impact on the education of ‘our kids’ (whoever they are) and children with additional needs, she should push for increased funding to support teachers in the classroom. The provision of more professional development and employment of classroom aides would be of far greater benefit (and more cost effective) than re-establishing a national two-tiered education system, which would only segregate the community and perpetuate ignorance.
The focus on the supposed ‘drain’ children with additional needs have on their teachers and classmates also wilfully ignores the very many positives they bring to a classroom, and the enrichment they bring to a school community. Penny*, a classroom aide, tells me that inclusive education, ‘encourages neurotypical children to socially engage and socially include children with autism, and hold a greater understanding of the disorder. This in turn creates socially inclusive and understanding adults’.
Fenella, a newly qualified primary school teacher, similarly refutes the notion that her students without disabilities are ‘disadvantaged’ in the classroom. She says, ‘they are exposed to the idea of difference, and what is wrong with that?'
She also observes that the modern classroom teacher works not only with children on the spectrum, but children with speech impediments and those who ‘have never been exposed to a book before’.
Where exactly would the line be drawn in an education system that excludes children with special needs? What level of ‘ability’ would a child require to ensure her welcome in a mainstream school?
As the school gradually emptied out for the day, and children scattered to their parents’ waiting cars, or grabbed their scooters and bikes for the ride home, my friend Sammy’s feelings about Hanson’s statements gave me a heartening insight into what I believe so many parents of children in mainstream schools think.
She said she is ‘amazed and inspired’ by the differences she sees in our school, particularly the ways in which some children have to rise above challenges and work that bit harder to find their way. ‘There is so much to be gained from an inclusive world’, she said, ‘and it all starts in their classrooms.’
I’m certain that in the coming days, Pauline Hanson will receive similar feedback from her constituents who embrace their children’s experiences of humanity in all its diversity.
Just as she was forced in March to backtrack on her statements about vaccines causing autism, perhaps she will be compelled to apologise for her assertions about the necessity of excluding children with additional needs from mainstream education.
View the reflection questions and activities for 'The value of diversity’ here