Courting controversy through offensive statements is no accident for Pauline Hanson. It is a deliberate strategy. Aside from her core constituency of racists and Islamaphobes, she has flirted with anti-vaccers, men’s rights activists and climate deniers among others by making statements that no reasonable politician would.
But even so, I was still surprised by her ignorant denigration of autistic students in parliament yesterday.
I remember being quite shocked and asking myself, “Did I really just read that?” To my autistic friends and former students let me say clearly, Hanson's appalling words speak volumes about her and those who vote for her, but are no reflection on you.
The issue of crowded, under-resourced classrooms in schools is a real one for teachers, especially when they include students with highly challenging behaviours. But conflating this issue with autism specifically was both weird and unnecessarily cruel.
Hanson’s comments show a real ignorance about the spectrum of behaviours that autism describes. To suggest autistic students invariably present challenging or difficult behaviour traits is so inaccurate it is almost bizarre. I have taught over a dozen diagnosed and undiagnosed autistic students in the last decade alone and I suspect if I was going through school now, I would have been diagnosed with it myself.
Some of these students have certainly needed some extra effort and careful management, while some have been at times difficult to work with. On the other hand, others (such as James) have been some of the kindest-hearted and hardest working human beings you will ever meet; and both myself and their classmates really appreciated having them in our class and benefited from the experience.
As evidenced by some of my previous writing, I don’t need much excuse to go hard against Hanson- many have already covered that pretty well, although it was perhaps best summed up by Emma Husar in this brilliant short statement- but is it possible she had any kind of point and just mangled her message?
Not really, no. If we were more generous than her past behaviour deserves, we might read her comments as a poorly worded attempt to highlight the difficulties of providing all student in the class with quality learning opportunities, whilst managing students with highly challenging behaviours. But even if we do that, she still hasn't made much sense or demonstrated any real understanding of the situation.
Because you know what, Pauline? Yeah, that is a challenge of teaching, although it often has nothing to do with autistic kids. That is why the job takes a lot of hard work, energy and preparation, as well as sometimes additional resources, but we do it anyway. To suggest that I can’t provide a safe and engaging learning environment for my students, whilst managing the challenging behaviour of particular kids is kind of insulting actually.
To say that autistic students are not challenging to teach and don’t require some individualised treatment would be a lie, but this is not an unusual impost on a teacher. Let me also state clearly most of the worst incidents I have had to deal with as a teacher have not involved autistic students. Moreover, all students, whether they are diagnosed with any condition or not, should present a challenge to teacher in how best to inspire them and unlock their learning. Equally, all students will require some level of individualised treatment, based on their specific circumstances and needs. That is why we differentiate learning opportunities for a range of learning styles and ability levels.
Now obviously more severely autistic students can require greater adjustments to their learning program and additional support such as teacher aides, additional resources and special needs programs. If Hanson wants to give schools more money for these sorts of things (and do something about the fact that our hard-working teacher aides are terribly underpaid), I’m all for it, but segregation based on a broad diagnosis is just ludicrous. Having disabled students in mainstream schooling as long as it is properly resourced, provides invaluable experience for both the student in question and the rest of the class, who learn important lessons about tolerance, difference and helping those around them. On the other hand, there is scant evidence (I know One Notion senators aren’t big on evidence, but the rest of us still like to see it) that compulsory segregation provides better outcomes for high needs students.
The students that tend to cause teachers the most disruption and difficulty are often not autistic or suffering from any kind of learning difficulty at all. There are all manner of disruptive behaviours that can interrupt learning and make a teacher’s job more difficult. Some of the most disappointing and difficult to manage incidents are when angry students with little empathy and respect for others target the most vulnerable members of the school community.
Does that behaviour sound familiar Pauline?