They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…

Is Autism “Ballooning”?

I’ve just had a linked-in “discussion” drop into my inbox, starting with “In the last 20 years, Autism has ballooned across the nation and the medical community is ‘baffled’ as to why this is happening.” It wasn’t really a discussion, more of an advertising pitch, so I didn’t get involved there – but I do have a couple of thoughts on the subject.

The Recognition Curve

Firstly – and I think this is the case with a lot of Learning Differences – whether or not autism autism has actually “ballooned”, certainly the awareness of it has. We now recognise certain traits as being “on the ASD spectrum”, whereas ten years ago the same traits may have just marked someone out as being “different” without defining how. Depending to a certain extent on the policy of the Local Authority, dyslexia was in a similar place on what you might call the “recognition curve” fifteen years or so ago. And ten years ago who had even heard, for example, of Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Yet just because the condition was not on the public radar this doesn’t mean that individuals and families were any less affected by it.

Help! I Need a Label.

So as science continues to extend the boundaries of our understanding we are able to identify different conditions, and with identification comes tailored support, adaptation and in some cases treatment. Unlike in some cultures, where “Special Needs” is still stigmatised, I think we can be proud of our inclusive philosophy in the UK, and because of that I think it’s important that we see the identification of a “Special Need” as a positive guide to understanding, not as a negative label for discrimination. The better we can categorize and define our behaviour, the better we can understand and help each other.

The Bubble that’s Ballooning

Alongside all this – and here’s the other thought – I do think that society is changing in such a way that people can spend much more time in their own private “bubble” than used to be the case. There was a time when the rise of the TV dinner was deplored in some circles for its detrimental effect on family life. Those days are long gone: now a multitude of virtual worlds, digital friends, and all the worst excesses of the internet are available, literally, in the palms of our hands. The nature/nurture debate is an old one, but if we are shaped at all by our environment, isn’t it likely that the time that children can spend cut off from other people by the screen in front of them is going to cause an increase in social communication difficulties? The linguistic root of “aut” ism is “self” ism, and today’s world is surely breeding it.

Bob Hext

On winning awards: light and gloss…

It’s a month since we won the Supplier of the Year award, so it’s about time I put down a few thoughts.

Firstly, yes it was great to win for the second year in succession. Thanks to everybody (usual acknowledgements – boring to hear/read – Oscar winners excruciating blah blah comes to mind! – but nonetheless true).

A little bit of detail about the award.  The Educational Resources Awards are run by the British Educational Suppliers Association. Again – think of the Oscars, and all the different categories: ERA is the same, so there’s stuff like best ICT product, best exporter, even best marketing campaign (I’ve never worked out what that’s got to do with Education, but whatever). Our Reading Rulers were finalists for best non-ICT SEN product (think “Oscar Nomination”) again this year. So – Supplier of the Year is the “biggie” (think “best film”), and there are three categories: under £1,000,000 turnover; £1-3 m turnover; and 0ver £3m. We won the first category this year and last year, and we were finalists in 2011 as well. The company has continued to grow, so next we’re we’ll be in the middle (£1-3m) category.

So where am I going with this? Well this blog is not so much about us, as about all the other winners as well. Like in any industry, the small business like ours rub along with the big names – the £3m + people. Companies like Findel and TTS come to mind, with huge pots of money to spend on product development, marketing etc. I used to know the guy who started TTS – he’s been to our house. But he sold the company to RM Nimbus, who are huge, and I don’t know who owns them. Findel are a public company who also own one of the door-to-door catalogue companies – Kleeneezie or Bettaware among other interests. Companies like ours are usually started and run by teachers with a genuine interest in children and teaching, who have developed something that “works”. In my case it was the card games I devised with my secondary school dyslexic students. Unfortunately the “big names”  of this world are often owned and run by people whose main interest is money, not children and teaching. I’m not painting myself whiter than white here: I enjoy making and spending money! But here’s the thing: not one of the “big boys” won a major award at the Educational Resources Awards 2013!!  Even though their names may have been splashed across the stage as sponsors of the event, their sponsorship bought them nothing – except a four-figure sum on their marketing account.

The £3m + winner was Rising Stars; an independent publisher. I hadn’t even heard of the £1-3m winners. And even though one of the “big boys” had entered their SEN brand into the under £1m category (how does that work??), they didn’t win, because we did. I was really heartened by this: the judges – all teachers and other Education professionals – were not impressed by the gloss that money can put on a company or product, but by the shine that came from its quality.

Which brings me to my last point: if anybody involved in organising conference exhibitions reads this, please take it on board. This year’s ERA awards show that people want genuine shine, not superficial gloss. Light, not polish. Yet some Conference exhibition organisers charge huge amounts of money for the “marketing opportunity” of exhibiting to a hundred or so people at their events. So who is going to exhibit? The companies for whom hundreds or thousands of pounds are just another line on the marketing budget. Gloss, not shine. Polish, not light. If you ever wondered why you only see the same old names  exhibiting at some of the events you’ve been to, just ask the exhibition organisers how much they charge for exhibition space…

And finally – if we do ever end up being one of the “big boys” ourselves, I hope and pray that we don’t lose sight of the values that make us what we are at the moment. If we can be a bit of light in the world, that will be good.

Overcoming Dyslexia (Guest Blog)

Dyslexia Fence

Dyslexia Fence (Photo credit: The Nikon Guru)

Overcoming dyslexia- Florence Beastall

I am only four years older than my brother, so when it was first recognised that he was dyslexic I was still quite young myself. From my childish point of view, I just thought that he was a bit slower at writing than I had been. I knew that he was actually a very clever boy, and if you had a conversation with him, he was very engaging and knowledgeable, but if you’d have asked him to write anything down you’d have found it strange that it was entirely beyond him to transfer his thoughts to paper. There was one day after school that it hit home to me how serious and important recognising dyslexia is for a child. My Mum and brother in were in the living room, and aged 14 or so, he was crying because he found school too hard. It broke my heart. I had never had a problem with any of the work at school, being reasonably bright; the only thing I had needed to worry about was your usual teenage girl things like spots and not letting anyone know you fancied someone a bit weird. Going to school, having to deal with your usual teenage boy things AND not be able to do the work you’re asked to must have been horrendous. I can’t imagine it.

He got through it though. He had a scribe with him for his GCSE’s and did well. At college he had a scribe with him and got better A Level results than I did. And I couldn’t have been prouder of him. He’s now at university, studying Politics, planning to go and study in Norway for a couple of months at the end of the year, I believe the universities are in negotiation about what extra support he will be needing while he’s out there, which is fabulous. Entirely different from the struggle it was for him to get support when he was in primary school. I know my Mum worked very hard to get it recognised that he was dyslexic, and not just a lazy little boy. He got a statement in Year 4, and from then I think things were a little better for him. My advice would be that if you think your child is dyslexic and needs extra support, fight for it, because it can make a lot of difference.

Now he’s at university, I know that the support hasn’t stopped there. He has a special program on his laptop called “Dragon naturally speaking”, which types whatever it is that he says into the microphone, meaning he is able to dictate his essays to his laptop and it does the spelling and writing for him; therefore taking the problematic “getting the ideas to paper” bit of essay writing. It does mean that he gets some wild mistakes in his writing, when he mumbles something and you get a random, nonsensical word in among the argument, but that’s what sending your work to your sister to proof read is all about. For the planning of his essays he uses “inspiration” software, which helps him make mind-maps and set out his thoughts clearly so that he can get straight into writing the essay without having to physically write a plan himself.

Having dyslexia doesn’t mean that you’re not intelligent, and that you can’t get a degree in something as rooted in reading and writing as politics. I have a politics degree myself and I know that there is so much reading to do, and essays are very complicated to plan, but if my brother can do it, there is no reason that someone else as determined couldn’t too. It’s all about having the right support.

I think it is so important to get the right provision as early as you can. My brother is an example of how something as simple as having a scribe with you for your exams can make the difference between getting A Level results that will see you safely into university, and not.