Why inclusion is bad for autism

10th June 2005 at 01:00
I'm a rare and lucky parent. My three children are happily placed in local state schools, and I'd hardly change a thing. Jake, seven, goes to the village primary, which has strong links with the community, sound ethics, and a healthy intellectual and social mix. Jake has lots of friends, loves football, and thoroughly enjoyed taking his recent Sats.

But the features that make Jake's school enriching for him are the opposite of what I want for my two older sons, George, 15, and Sam, 13, who are both autistic. They attend an autism-specific facility at a special school. They started in a mainstream primary, but despite its good intentions, it soon became clear the only thing they had in common with the other children was that they were under the same roof.

Autistic needs aren't subtly different from mainstream needs; they're diametrically opposed. Autism is, above all, a social disability.

For an autist, social interaction is work, not relaxation. Learning to take part in a conversation is, for George, the equivalent of the dreaded double chemistry lessons of my youth.

For autists, social skills are not intuitive. Most learn nothing in a group. They shrink from change, bustle, laughter, or playground chatter - all inevitable and desirable features of school life. To assume that "normal" behaviour will be learned by exposure to "normal" children is to misunderstand autism; that imitative instinct just is not there.

And autistic sensory hypersensitivities are often overlooked. Jake can screen out flickering striplights, humming radiators, or the way reflections glint on the teacher's glasses, but for George and Sam these may be distracting, even overwhelming.

The ideal autistic classroom is quiet, uncluttered, with neutral decor. The ideal timetable is tailor-made for each individual. Tasks should be seen through to completion, not interrupted by a bell at the end of an arbitrary 40 minutes. Above all, the ideal staff:pupil ratio is one-to-one.

Make Me Normal, the excellent documentary on Channel 4 last week, was filmed at an autism-specific state school in East London. There was no overt political agenda; the film simply followed four able, articulate teenagers, all painfully aware of the barriers their condition places between them and "the real world". None lacked intellect but that doesn't fit anyone for mainstream if "emotional intelligence" is absent.

Moneer, 12, wanted to go to Oxford and become an Egyptologist, but his behaviour showed that his understanding of the needs and rights of his classmates was less than that of a two-year-old.

Roy, 18, was a world authority on EastEnders ("I first saw Vicky Fowler on January 23, 2003, at 7.57"). Roy wanted Kirsty to be his girlfriend, and was even prepared to miss the EastEnders omnibus to spend time with her - "forget EastEnders, you and me's more important." But when Kirsty rejected him, he could not name the pain he felt - "What's that called when you feel crying? What's that emotion called?"

Esther, 18, felt life was unfair but accepted she needed to work to understand her autism ("I will be able to if I have more practice.") And practice is exactly what the patient, experienced staff in the sheltered environment of the Spa school could provide.

I defy anyone to watch Make Me Normal and conclude that these young people would thrive in mainstream - or that it would be fair to expect the other pupils to tolerate their extreme behaviour.

Every assumption I'd made about child development has been overturned in parenting George and Sam. The same is true of teaching autistic children.

Jake is motivated to learn by adult approval, the competitive instinct, the desire to conform, rewards and praise, as well as interest in a subject for its own sake. For George and Sam, none of this applies. I've had to train them to recognise rewards, even to tolerate praise. To Sam, a gold star is an annoying sticker to be rolled and flicked; to George, applause is an intrusive noise.

How can we expect overworked mainstream teachers to reconcile such different approaches in the same classroom? "We're born like this and we'll always be different," states Esther.

In guiding autists to working with their differences rather than against them, the Spa school and others like it provide an invaluable service.

George and Sam, Charlotte Moore's account of life with her autistic sons, has recently been published in Penguin paperback, price pound;7.99

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