Punished, betrayed, sidelined - our
'lost generation' of autistic children
Scotland's education system is failing hundreds of the
country's most vulnerable youngsters, bringing misery to families, an
investigation by The Scotsman has revealed. With autism cases soaring,
increasing numbers of children are being let down by mainstream schools,
which fail to cope with their specific needs and leave parents angry and
frustrated by failing to keep them informed.
Our investigation uncovered disturbing evidence of how
schools often refuse to accept that a child's behaviour could be linked
to autism, despite the large rise in diagnosed cases. Even when a child
is diagnosed, staff are often simply unable to cope with the challenges
their autism presents - a lost opportunity. Instead, the pupils can be
labelled disruptive, meaning the school looks to punish children rather
than help them cope with the effects of their condition.
The system often leaves the child terrified to return
to a place where they are at loggerheads with their teachers and where
they are likely to be bullied by fellow pupils. Our findings highlight
failures in the system revealed last year in a damning report by Her
Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe), which found school services
for youngsters with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) were "frequently
deficient in either the attention given to addressing the underlying ASD
needs, or conversely in addressing achievement across the curriculum".
The study, based on inspections of schools across the
country, also found teachers were not tracking the academic progress of
autistic pupils, with the result that "schools and authorities did not
have sufficiently detailed information about the achievement of pupils
with ASD". Staff training was also inadequate, the report said, meaning
pupils' specific needs were not being properly addressed.
Perhaps the most worrying section of the report dealt
with how the parents of autistic children felt they were treated by the
system. "Individual parents contacted inspectors to indicate that they
were very unhappy about provision for their children and particularly
the ways in which the education authority had dealt with decisions
affecting their child," it said.
Scottish Executive statistics showed the need to
address the problems highlighted by HMIe were becoming more urgent with
every passing year. In 2005, state secondaries had 825 pupils with ASD,
compared with 114 in 1999 - an increase of 623 per cent. Over the same
period, the number of autistic youngsters in primary schools more than
quadrupled, from 415 to 1,736. Overall, there are an estimated 8,000
school-age children with ASD in Scotland. Roughly one in 100, or 50,000,
Scots are on the autistic spectrum.
On the day HMIe released its report in November, the
National Autistic Society (NAS) published the findings of its own
survey. It revealed two out of three parents were unhappy with services
for their autistic children, nearly half of autistic pupils had been
bullied at school and more than a third of families waited more than a
year before their children received support at school. The results of
their survey prompted the NAS to launch its three-pronged Make School
Make Sense campaign. It wants every autistic child to be sent to the
right school; every teacher to get the right level of training so they
are better equipped to help autistic children reach their full
potential; and every school to introduce the correct teaching methods
for autistic youngsters.
With 50,000 families in Scotland affected - and the
numbers apparently rising exponentially - it is a campaign in which
parents all over the country have a vested interest.
Carol Evans, the national director of the NAS in
Scotland, last night welcomed The Scotsman's support for its campaign
and urged families and politicians across the country to give it their
backing. Robert Brown, the deputy education minister, said: "Children
with autistic spectrum disorder require special support in class; that's
why we asked HMIe to look at the provision for these pupils. We have
carefully studied the HMIe report and while we are pleased they have
found a great deal of good practice, we recognise more needs to be
done." It is for precisely that reason The Scotsman is seeking to raise
awareness of the problem by highlighting the experiences of the families
of autistic children and the struggles they have had in the school
'I was intimidated at two-hour meeting with four
teachers' – A mother's story
Within days of starting secondary school, Jonathan McFarlane, who
was diagnosed with autism at three years old, was getting into trouble
with teachers. "Initially, the school was supportive, but as Jonathan
started to challenge them, instead of looking at why some of the
behaviour was happening, they were looking at how they would deal with
the effects," said his mother, Jan, from Galston, East Ayrshire. "They
just hadn't come across anyone like him before."
After several attempts to address his problems, Ms
McFarlane reluctantly decided the only way to deal with the situation
was to keep him off school. "He'd gone from being confident to being
scared of other children," she said. It had been very different when
Jonathan was younger. He got a place at a local nursery school and
enjoyed it. When he reached school age, Jonathan went to a communication
unit for autistic youngsters and again did well, moving to a local state
primary when he was eight.
In August, Jonathan moved to Louden Academy, a state
secondary in Ayrshire. Although he was given a place in the school's
communication unit, which gives one-to-one teaching to pupils with
special needs, Jonathan insisted on being placed in a mainstream class.
He was given an auxiliary support worker to help him, but his behaviour
was soon giving cause for concern.
Eventually, Ms McFarlane was called to discuss her
son's behaviour. She was shocked by what she faced. "There were two
deputy heads, a principal teacher, a guidance teacher and a classroom
assistant," she said. "It lasted for two hours and was very
intimidating. They were saying they were doing all these things for
Jonathan and he wasn't behaving, so they would have to go down the
After seeing an educational psychologist, Jonathan
returned to the school's communication unit, where he is starting to
show signs of progress. However, Ms McFarlane remains angry at the
experience, which she blames on a lack of training for his teachers.
East Ayrshire Council said Louden Academy offered a range of support for
young people with special needs.
'They are not bad kids'
FOR Lou McGill, it was a day of mixed emotions. Her son Laurie finally
had an appointment to see an educational psychologist, which she was
sure would confirm her suspicions that he had Asperger's Syndrome. But
it was also the day that Laurie was excluded from the mainstream primary
school in Glasgow he had been attending. "Things started to go wrong
last January and Laurie's self-esteem levels dropped dramatically," said
Ms McGill. "He got so scared about going to school that I began keeping
him off. It might appear that these children are badly behaved and
deliberately disruptive, but that's not the case."
Ms McGill said the school refused to offer her son any
support or help, so rather than send him back after his exclusion was
over, she and her partner decided to educate him at home.
Once Laurie's condition had been diagnosed, a place
was found for him at Hill's Trust Primary School in Govan. Since then,
the transformation has been proof of the great strides autistic
youngsters can make, and Laurie excels in mathematics.
Ms McGill said: "They've made an enormous difference.
"For example, they don't make him go outside every playtime, so he can
sit in the peace and quiet and read a book or go on the computer. People
who see Laurie now remark on how different he is from a year ago."
But Ms McGill admitted: "Inclusion in mainstream
schools is only possible with the right staff training."
30 January 2007