Our eldest daughter began primary school this past year, and at times I wonder who is being educated more; my daughter or I! The curriculum of junior infants has matured and broadened in scope quite a bit since my time attending all those years ago. Every evening when I see her at home, there is a new topic of conversation from space to flags to nationality and all the way through to diet and health. Constant in her daily observations are the presence of her class mates, and the individuality of these other little girls is greatly informing her learning. The classrooms I grew up in were comprised in the main by other similar boys of a white Irish ethnicity. I am delighted to see that in the intervening 25 years, the classroom now resembles far more closely the society we live in with all ethnicities and backgrounds in attendance. This can only enrich her (and my!) learning, and make for a far more inclusive society as these children mature and grow up.
The department of education and the teachers are doing a great job of leveraging the opportunities for learning that the new multicultural society and classrooms provide. However, there are elements of difference which to my eyes still need to be addressed within the classroom setting, and also in the homes of all the children. What brought this home for me a few weeks ago was when Maisie came home with a note in her bag from the teacher apologising for a scrape she received in school from a classmate with special needs. There was no mark on her face but we asked her what happened and if she was ok. She then told us about how her friend had slapped her on the face and how the other little girl wouldn’t stop being bold. We started to discuss with Maisie how this little girl was like her brother and sister and needed extra space and patience; at which Maisie became very upset and blurted out that “yes, yes. They have the Autism” but that her brother and sister were different as they’re younger than her friend in school.
I was actually shocked when Maisie said this. We have been introducing her to the fact that her brother and sister are different, and have autism, but to hear her say it aloud about another child in such a way, such a label, frightened me. We had no idea that there was a child in her class with special needs, and indeed subsequently found out that this little girl has the assistance of an SNA at times during the day. We shouldn’t find out about this in such a way. Schools should be open about the fact that there is an SNA helping a little child in the class. In the same way that the school is featuring Chinese culture this month with the girls, and introducing elements of Mandarin to them; the school should be educating the children properly about the different needs that different people like those with Autism, Dyslexia and other needs have. Proactively communicating to the families of the children would also help spread this learning, and break down any untruths or lack of understanding of special needs. As a parent of children with Autism, we could have used the example of this little girl in Maisie’s class to help her understand the differences that she is starting to see in her little brother and sister. Equally other parents could address the fact with their children, so as to avoid the little girl being seen as “bold” or having a temper in class. Labels of any kind should not be used in a reductionist manner to educate our children.
I grew up ignorant of any children of special needs. Before my twins were diagnosed with Autism, I had never met anybody with Autism. This lack of understanding compounded my disorientation when we received the official diagnosis for the twins. If I had been better educated to understand what was possible for people with Autism in life, then I believe it would not have felt like such a terminal sentence that day. In little under a year, my understanding of Autism and in turn all special needs has transformed. Whilst this journey has been driven by my own children, I feel that educating all children now in primary school as to all the differences we share and own should be a cornerstone of education.
It was great therefore to see Adam Harris (@adampharris) on the Saturday Night Show a few weeks ago, showcasing the great efforts that he is engaged in with his website and movement As I Am (@asiamireland). He is leading efforts at bridging this ignorance and lack of understanding amongst older children in school here in Ireland. Adam clearly articulated the challenges that this lack of empathy that arises from being uninformed can create. Nobody wishes actively to discriminate or show a lack of understanding towards people, but a lack of education and experience about individuals with special needs such as Autism, unfortunately will result in inappropriate responses towards these individuals.
I also learned of an organisation through a good college friend who upon reading the blog reached out to me to share his experiences through the efforts of his family supporting an initiative called “share a break” (http://www.muiriosa.ie/menu.asp?menu=44&parent=0&item=00012). I had never heard of this or similar schemes run by www.kare.ie and www.nhsn.ie . These schemes recruit volunteer families who are willing to accommodate an individual with special needs across a variety of learning disabilities, on a short holiday break in their homes. This obviously provides a great respite for the individual’s families and the individuals themselves; but it also provides a fantastic learning opportunity for the host family particularly the children. This is the experience that my friend related to me, and his family all fell in love with their guest and his personality. He greatly enriched their lives and helped them build that understanding and empathy for individuals who are not in the norm.
We are right to seek to understand the different cultural backgrounds of our friends, colleagues and neighbours but we should also look past a person’s visible traits such as ethnicity and look to the other important elements that make them who they and their family are. I do not have Autism, but through my kids, I have started to look at the world with an augmented lens that takes account of all people with different needs. This message needs to be shared with the next generation so that they can learn, understand and seek to accommodate everybody and their needs. Creating a more empathetic and welcoming society should be a goal for everybody regardless of their personal circumstance; and starting in the classroom would be a great place for now.