When my daughter was born, my dreams for her unfolded in a brilliant panorama. I envisioned her going to school and then university, following her passions whatever they may be, making friends, being loved. I looked forward to seeing her personality develop and discovering her strengths, I was committed to helping her live her best life.
And then in 2014, soon after she turned three, I listened to a psychologist tell me that those dreams may never come true.
My daughter had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, she said gently, adding that this meant she may never be able to speak or interact with others, read and write, or live independently. As I sat in the car afterwards, choking with grief, I couldn’t even begin to see what kind of future my daughter would have.
In the weeks and months that followed, I began my journey towards acceptance. I saw that she was still the same child that she was before the diagnosis, and that a diagnosis that focused so heavily on deficiencies did not take into consideration her many strengths, her vibrant personality, her enthusiasm and energy. I was determined to build on these things and started looking into therapies and resources that could help, and of course, a school that would best meet her needs.
When it was time to enrol her in preschool, everyone that I spoke with, from professionals to friends and family, steered me in the direction of the special schools and special units in Canberra. It seemed an ideal solution – a specialised, small-group setting with educators trained to meet the needs of my child. If she was in a Learning Support Unit (a small class located within a mainstream school), she would occasionally integrate into mainstream ‘when she was ready’. I believed this was the best path for her.
And then in October 2015, I saw a flyer for a workshop on School Inclusion, run by Imagine More, an organisation that advocates for individuals with a disability to hold socially valued roles in an inclusive community. The very words ‘School Inclusion’, were new to me, and the words under the title – ‘What it is, why it matters and having the confidence to make it a reality’, intrigued me. I went along to the workshop, not knowing that I was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would change the way I perceived my daughter’s future and her place in the world.
At the workshop, the speakers talked about how inclusive education meant that all children were included in every way in a mainstream classroom, by creating a climate of acceptance. Inclusion, they said, focuses on everyone’s abilities and possibilities rather than disabilities and limitations. They explained the importance of creating a vision for your child that was guided by what would constitute a full, meaningful life for typical peers the same age.
It was as though I had been given permission to return to thinking the way I had been before the word ‘autism’ came into our lives.
As I started writing down my vision for her, I realised that my goals for her were the same as before – school, friends, family, helping her to be the best person she could be. If she went to the recommended ‘special’ settings, she might not have the opportunities to learn from watching her peers and to engage in typical social interactions. She might not get the chance to grow up alongside the other neighbourhood kids.
I started reading studies on the benefits of inclusion, that explicitly proved my daughter would have not just a higher chance of academic success, but also better mental health outcomes if she was included in a mainstream school. Furthermore, inclusive education had been found to have equal or better academic and social outcomes for all children – not just for children with a disability. The more I learned, the more it was clear that a mainstream education, with the right supports, would provide the best outcome for my child.
Our first attempt at accessing an inclusive education, last year at our local preschool, was a failure. Despite our best efforts, the school simply did not have the knowledge, resources or most importantly, the attitude to make things work. The lack of clear boundaries and expectations led to my daughter developing challenging behaviours that we had never seen before.
During meetings with the school to discuss these issues, I would suggest different strategies to deal with the behaviour and engage her in learning. The school would indicate that these were too difficult to implement, and that she would be better supported in a specialised setting.
I began to dread hearing the words ‘the other children’ – ‘the teacher can’t give her the attention she needs because we have to think of the other children‘, ‘we can’t modify the classroom for her because of the other children’, ‘we have to take her out when she gets noisy as it disturbs the other children’. After one particularly confronting meeting, I walked out sobbing, and called a friend.
“I just can’t do this anymore,” I said, “I give up. I’m going to enrol her in the special school.”
“I know, I get it,” my friend said, “but you can’t give up. If you don’t stand up for her, who will? You can’t stop believing in her and the life that you want for her.”
I knew she was right. Even though it was hard, I couldn’t let this setback define her future. I started doing more research on which schools were good at inclusion, and visiting other public primary schools in Canberra. At one school, I could see inclusion in action the moment I walked in – a child with a disability was being supported by her classmates to participate in an activity that the whole class was engaged in.
The school was clearly inclusion-focused, and committed to providing opportunities for all children to access the curriculum. “We would love to have your daughter at our school,” the deputy principal told me as I described her needs and the challenges we’d faced, “our priority would be to ensure her needs are met and that she is achieving her potential”. I felt hope rising in me again.
Today, my daughter is thriving at a school that has welcomed her with open arms and done everything to make sure she feels like she belongs. All those behaviours that caused so much distress at the previous school, are no longer present. They have high expectations of her, which she knows, and does her best to live up to.
The recent spate of political discourse on children with autism in mainstream classrooms, spurred on by comments from Senator Pauline Hanson, has made me think of our two diverse school experiences, and how an attitude of acceptance can make all the difference. It’s clear that while the legislation states that all children have a right to an inclusive education, there needs to be not just a mindset change, but also better allocation of support and resources, and preparation for teachers to better equip them to cater to the full range of students.
At her current school, my daughter gets to practise, in a safe setting, the skills she will need for her future – following instructions, being part of a team, being responsible. Her aide supports her to interact with her classmates – something she loves to do, but does not know how to initiate. Now, when I hear the words ‘the other children’, it is in a different context – ‘the other children wanted to know who would get to be her partner today’, or ‘the other children helped her talk about her weekend’.
If schools are to be a reflection of society at large, I believe that neurotypical children should also have the experience of going to school with children like my daughter, to give them the best chance of growing into adults who are accepting of differences. After all, school is not just about academic learning, but also about building friendships, self-esteem and personal principles that will carry through into adulthood.