The problem with mainstream education: Is there one?
Feb 04, 2021
This week, we made the decision to bring home the last of our girls from the mainstream education system.
My inner knowing all along was that in order to thrive, she would do best immersed in autistic culture and community; understanding and learning about the foundations of her autistic identity-how she learns, thinks and processes, responds to her environment; her expansive emotional depth and range, the way she relates to others and herself.
I knew she would need intensive and extensive nurturing of who she is and who she was born to be.
Her neurodivergent birthright.
I also knew and understood that this was her process and as she wanted to attend a mainstream school, we of course supported her to do so.
At the foundation of all of this last year when she began her first year of school at the precious age of six, my unspoken and unwritten boundary for myself and our family was that we would not fight.
We would not fight a system that was not for her.
We would not beg for acceptance or understanding.
We are clear and grounded in who we are as an autistic family.
We have worked HARD to know who we are, and how we thrive and this evolves with growth and change which comes from setbacks, mistakes, misunderstandings, sadness and pain.
I won't go into what happened, what went wrong, why she decided she'd had enough, how we feel about the education system or what we or they should have/could have done differently.
Because honestly, it doesn't matter.
The truth is, we all have a fundamental understanding that every human being is different.
We all know and understand that there are many brains, many personalities, many races and cultures and needs.
We're just not quite there with acceptance.
Not only is the education system not quite there, neither are we, the families.
We pay so much lip service to the plight of acceptance and embracing diversity in all of it's forms..
But then we feel like we're failures or there's something wrong with our children when they don't fit.
We often expend rage; project our trauma onto those systems for not doing differently.
I watched as my child was not only NOT understood, but MISunderstood.
I watch non autistic adults in positions of leadership misinterpret autistic behaviour constantly.
Endlessly. And holding steadfast to their beliefs.
Those beliefs are what has been taught to them in professional development.
Non autistic "experts" on autism.
We work our arses off as autistic parents to instil self advocacy and autistic pride in our children.
We teach our children about their non autistic peers based on our understandings and experiences in the same systems growing up.
We take the responsibility constantly to prepare our babies and what I have seen in my children over the last 23 years is that often, placing them into that system is counterproductive to all of what we've taught.
And, I'm not prepared to blame.
I've been the ignorant educator who felt I knew enough about autism from my professional development on autism.
Timers, visual charts and schedules, dot points on the board and a few breaks.
Checking in to make sure they understand, because bless them, they are disordered.
And herein lies the problem.
Almost any and every support and accommodation on offer in the classroom to autistic children is formulated from the medical model and disorder perspective.
It is not grounded in autistic identity and culture.
Almost twenty years ago when I was working in early childhood education, our local community welcomed many African families into our schools and neighbourhoods.
As educators, we researched the many languages and cultures of our African families and we welcomed them with graphics in their language, invited them in to teach us about their culture and spend time in our centres with us, the educators of their children.
We consulted with THEM about their way.
Years later, as a secondary teacher, I checked in with my students from those same families and asked questions and had long conversations about their experiences and their country in order to individualise their learning experience in Australia and in my classes that was culturally sensitive, respectful and informed.
I made time to meet with my Australian born students to share what I could in order to encourage them to support and look out for their peers who were still learning English.
It wasn't always perfect, but it worked.
I invited and encouraged a natural curiosity in the classroom environment about other experiences.
Other races, identities, languages and experiences.
When we learnt about World War II and the Holocaust, we listened to the stories of Jewish elders from the Jewish community.
When we learnt about mental health and mental illness, we heard from people who actually experienced mental illness.
When we learnt about racism, we invited Gilbert McAdams into our classroom, a gifted Australian Indigenous AFL player and sports commentator to share his lived experience with racism and sport.
I was so enriched as a human being.
It was an honour and a privilege to be trusted to hear the many stories of warn torn countries and the loss and trauma associated with what was a completely foreign experience for me and many other students.
Slowly, over time and with trust; many of our newly arrived students started writing and sharing with their classmates their stories.
The tears, the love and the compassion from what we know as privileged peers was powerful.
What I've witnessed as an educator, as a parent of autistic children, as an autistic person, as a disengaged autistic student and as a professional supporting families is that we don't know where to start with disability inclusion because our foundation is disorder.
It is ableism, and often unconscious discrimination (as well as outright).
Our understanding does not begin from the inside of the student; their inner world.
It begins from the outside; their behaviour.
When classrooms are structured in such a way that our focus is on offering extrinsic rewards based on where a child sits on a behavioural chart we've failed them dismally.
We've overlooked them. Dismissed them.
We lack a basic understanding of the fluctuation of human being and doing.
Emotions, actions, the ups and downs of being a person.
What I know is that mainstream education is a cultural mismatch for my autistic children.
Whilst my little girl was immersed in non autistic culture and peers, her difference-her identity was highlighted only in a negative way.
When she is immersed in neurodivergent culture, she shines.
She is not anxious, impending being misunderstood and reprimanded.
Her neurobiology is calm.
Her nervous system is sedated by radical love and acceptance.
Sometimes, no matter what supports and tools are on offer in the classroom, school will still be a cultural mismatch for neurodivergent students.
An aide on offer to guide our children around their social skills and interactions with their peers is not our way.
Our children are not wrong in their interactions; they are communicating and engaging as autistic children.
We leave school on good terms.
We walk away with acceptance that the current education system is a mismatch for our daughter.
I share the sadness with my baby who loved school.
Who loves learning and loves people.
And whilst she still loves learning and people, it is time to come home.
It is time to unmask the beginnings of what wouldn't have ended well had we not taken action now.
It is time to be immersed with her culture.
Autistic culture and community.