Children with autism have become suicidal after struggling at school amid a lack of support, MSPs have heard.
Concerns were also raised in the Scottish Parliament about autistic pupils being unlawfully excluded, shut away in windowless rooms and taught in corridors, as well as families being forced to home-educate their children.
Uddingston and Bellshill SNP MSP Richard Lyle spoke of one pupil in P7 (when children are typically aged 10 or 11) whose long-running struggles in formal education led him to become suicidal; at a time when he had many absences from school, his mental health had become “very poor” and “anxiety about school became a daily struggle”.
Yesterday evening’s debate, which was prompted by the recent Not included, not engaged, not involved report, also saw Glasgow Conservative MSP Annie Wells recount the story of Rachel, a girl who was only diagnosed with autism at 14 and had “no transitional support when starting secondary school”.
“By her third year, her anxiety was so bad that she began to refuse to go to school and experienced panic attacks,” said Ms Wells. “Upon her diagnosis, the school was unsure of how to support her, and she believed that the support that she did receive was in line with punishments for non-autistic individuals.
“Rachel ultimately felt suicidal, and she now feels strongly that teachers should receive better training and that a more positive narrative should be built around autism.”
Ms Wells also spoke about a girl called Jasmine who was diagnosed with autism, aged four, and felt ostracised at school due to a lack of understanding about the condition.
“As a victim of bullying, she felt that things were made worse when she was put in separate classes with children with additional support needs, which eventually led her to attempt to take her own life,” said Ms Wells.
“Although Jasmine’s situation improved after she left school and received cognitive behavioural therapy, her experience is evidence of how the system can fail to support those youngsters who need it most, with potentially drastic consequences.”
Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson, who led the debate, referred back to the September report jointly produced by Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism. The “most distressing finding”, he said, was that 13 per cent of parents said that their children had been formally excluded, and three-quarters of those had been excluded on more than one occasion.
He added, however, that “the truly worrying picture” was how frequently unlawful and informal exclusions were being used: 37 per cent of surveyed parents reported that their children had been excluded informally, and a quarter of those said that it was happening more than once per week. Mr Johnson cautioned that the figures were “not necessarily representative”, though, as the response rate equated to about 10 per cent of the autistic-pupil population.
Mr Johnson said: “Those informal exclusions are described as ‘cooling-off periods’ or 'time outs', but they are exclusions of children without records being made or notification being given. Let us be clear here this evening: that is against the law and should not be happening.”
He also spoke of “shock and anger at hearing about parents having to lawyer up to fight for the legal rights of their children to be educated” and “families who were forced to home-school their children, not through choice, but because there was no other option for them to have their children educated”.
Mr Johnson expressed anger, too, about “seven-year-olds, who are barely able to write their own name, being asked to sign pledges that they would modify their behaviour at school”.
He added: “Most shocking to me was hearing about the experiences of young people being forcibly taken from their classrooms and put into a 12ft by 12ft windowless softroom because of their behaviour. That is what is happening to some children today in Scotland in our schools. We need to make this debate the first step towards ending those experiences.”
Fall in ASN teacher total
The debate explored the root causes of such problems, covering funding and the national policy of pupils with additional support needs being educated in mainstream schools as standard practice.
Mr Johnson said the recent report’s recommendations “do not go far enough”, adding: “We must invest in teachers and their capacity to deal with additional support needs”. Teachers were “not getting the support that they deserve”, with specialist teacher numbers down 20 per cent since 2010 and the number of educational psychologists also declining.
He added that “the commitment to mainstreaming is for nothing if, in reality, mainstreaming means exclusion from school and a very limited timetable”.
Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer expressed concern that the number of additional specialist needs teachers had dropped by more than 400 in eight years, and also recalled a witness’s anecdote in Parliament in 2017 that crystallised concerns about a lack of expertise in dealing with autism in schools.
“I think that the chamber will recall some of that evidence, such as the [school] staff member who was told to watch [sitcom] The Big Bang Theory to better support a pupil with Asperger's syndrome,” said Mr Greer.
Aberdeen Donside independent MSP Mark McDonald told of a pupil in P3 (when children are typically aged 6 or 7) who “despite various measures being put in place…was being taught one to one in either the corridor or the headteacher’s office if a pupil-support assistant was unavailable”.
That child’s experience and that of a brother with autism led their mother to feel “completely failed by the education system” and, as a result of their “traumatic experiences”, said McDonald, meant her third son had refused to attend school and was being home educated.
Education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney, responding to the problems highlighted by MSPs, said they were caused by more than a lack of funding, although he did cite the “acutely challenging” situation given “the financial approach that has been taken by the Conservative government in London…since 2010”.
Mr Swinney added: “We kid ourselves if we think that all this is simply about resources. Resources are a significant issue, but there are significant issues about attitudes and ethos that are relevant in the consideration of these questions.”