Having just watched the ‘Girls with Autism’ documentary on ITV, it was the statement “I’m here because no one else will have me’, that really touched home; perhaps because for many of my students that is also their reality. Many of my students travel a long way to go to school each day, we are not their nearest school, we are instead the one which will take them. And yet, our students are the lucky ones because once our places are full (which they currently are), they are left with no choice but to travel even further.
I sat yesterday talking to my own daughter about secondary schools (albeit three years in advance, because that is the way she likes to do things) and despite the smiley face I was wearing, my heart was sinking. Secondary schools are difficult places for students with Autism, they are noisy, they are bustling, there are far too many people, and those people with hormones racing round their bodies are increasingly unpredictable. Added to that, increased work pressures, homework and the now or never feeling of exams and it’s an anxiety producing combination.
I often wonder how many of my students would need a setting like ours, or indeed how many of those girls on the documentary would need to travel 100s of miles to go to an Autism specific boarding school if there was more knowledge and understanding out there. It’s much easier to manage in a system that cares, than one that doesn’t. And the build up of anxiety after repeated episodes of a system and individuals that simply don’t understand, causes extreme behaviours, which in turn cause exclusions and feelings of failure which can then become a vicious circle.
The system isn’t likely to improve quickly, schools will continue to be as they are but that doesn’t mean we can’t change things. We as teachers have the power to change the lives of our students. We have the power to understand, to care, to say and mean “We want you, we value you.” Showing a student with autism that they are wanted, that you will help them, that you care if they are successful is a huge step towards getting it right.
Our students can’t read your mind; they don’t know how much you care about all of your students. You need to go that extra mind and tell them. It will make a difference. It will make a difference to them as people, and also to them as learners. We all work harder if we feel we are liked…