Hidden disability brought to light

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
Mothers' research highlights need to raise awareness of dyslexia and autism

All primary pupils should take part in hidden disabilities workshops and assemblies to understand what other children are going through - and these should form part of the transition process to secondary, according to new teacher-led research published by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

The 18-month research project by two mothers of children with dyslexia and autism set out to ascertain if by raising awareness of specific hidden disabilities, teachers could make children more accepting of them and less judgmental.

They ran a series of pupil workshops and assemblies in nine primary schools across four local authorities in the east of Scotland, and offered continuing professional development sessions to teachers in the participating schools.

By the end of the project, pupils' breadth of knowledge and understanding of both disorders had increased significantly, and many pupils displayed more empathy; 96 per cent of children said they felt it was important for them to be taught about "hidden" disabilities and 83 per cent of children shared their experiences at home.

Kirsten Duncan, a support for learning teacher at Loanhead Primary in Midlothian, has a 15-year-old daughter Jenna, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in P5.

Caroline Bingham, who teaches at Edinburgh Academy's junior school, has a 10-year-old son Jack, who is autistic and attends the specialist Kaimes School in Edinburgh.

Both mature entrants to teaching, they met while doing their BEd degrees at Moray House, Edinburgh University and have remained friends in the five years since graduating.

One of the recommendations in the Donaldson report on initial teacher education was that a greater focus should be given to training new teachers in children's learning difficulties.

With a reported one in 100 children on the autism spectrum and one in 10 considered to be dyslexic, most mainstream classes are likely to include at least one child with a hidden disability.

"There are more and more children in mainstream classes who have additional support needs, but they are not really talked about, especially among their peers," said Ms Duncan.

She discovered her own daughter's dyslexia while doing teacher training, when Jenna was in P5. "I had one of those moments - I was sitting in a lecture about dyslexia and I just thought, `That's my daughter'. It was a revelation. We had been going through years of this and hadn't picked up on it."

There were some lectures about dyslexia, but not enough about additional support needs, she said.

Her daughter had insisted on keeping her dyslexia secret because she was afraid that other children would laugh at her. "I always thought it was really unfair that children would feel like that," said Ms Duncan.

Mrs Bingham recalls receiving two lectures devoted to dyslexia during her four-year BEd degree; in her final year, she took a week-long option on additional support needs, which included autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

"You could have gone through the whole BEd and not learnt anything at all about ASD," she said.

She used her own experiences as a parent, along with training she had received on autism with other parents, to construct the awareness-raising workshops and pupil-led assemblies on ASD. One was prompted by an occasion when her son became upset during a weekly visit to the supermarket because she had decided not to buy bread - a change from his important shopping routine. A group of children and adults had laughed and made fun of her and her family, she said.

The two teachers now propose to carry out a survey to identify the percentage of school staff that has done CPD on dyslexia andor ASD.


How they raised awareness

Kirsten Duncan and Caroline Bingham investigated the level of knowledge and understanding children have of hidden disabilities; how they respond to peers with hidden disabilities; and the support children receive to help them deal with any challenges they may encounter relating to their disabilities.

After consulting with parents of children with dyslexia and ASD and, where possible, the children themselves, they designed research questions to ascertain pupils' levels of awareness.

These were followed by workshops and pupil-led assemblies:

- Dyslexia workshop: This included visual and auditory memory games to demonstrate the short and long-term memory problems experienced by dyslexic adults and children; blurred words activities; lateral thinking puzzles to show that dyslexics often have a particular strength in problem solving; and matching activities in which pupils were asked to match famous dyslexics, including Jamie Oliver, Muhammad Ali (pictured), with statements of the challenges they faced.

- ASD awareness workshops: These included communicating without using words - to appreciate the frustration experienced on a daily basis by people with ASD; drama scenarios featuring a supermarket tantrum; classroom issues such as when an autistic pupil has difficulty making eye contact; playground problems; and sensory overload tasks where they were exposed to lights and torches being switched on and off, lots of loud music and having their hands tickled with feathers.

Original headline: Parents shine spotlight on hidden disabilities

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