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
Director