Nicky Harvey outlines one child’s journey from isolation at school to an environment accepting and supportive of his autism
Ray is a sensitive, artistic and kind hearted boy on the autistic spectrum. He joined my class towards the end of the Spring Term at a busy time last year, but slotted in perfectly. Like many children with autism, he had experienced a great deal of upheaval in life because of his diagnosis.
Autism is a developmental condition affecting how a person perceives the world around them. This can include difficulties with social interactions, expressing feelings, and nonverbal and verbal communication with others. There are over 700,000 people living with autism in the UK, with 2.8 million people affected in some form by the condition, and the numbers are rising.
Ray was born in south-eastern Asia, to loving parents who were pleased to have a healthy happy baby boy. Ray’s parents soon discovered he behaved differently compared to other children, but assumed he was a late developer. Upon reaching school age and starting at elementary school, Ray’s parents received feedback with hints of his specific learning needs and behaviour traits. The school tried their best, but due to firmly rooted cultures and learning customs, they were unable to understand, teach or effectively communicate with Ray.
After originally leaving the UK for Thailand over 10 years ago, to start a new life in the sun, Ray’s parents felt they had no choice but to pack up, close the family business and return to England. His family wanted Ray to receive the education, empathy and therapeutic support he was entitled to.
Upon arrival in the UK, Ray was assessed and diagnosed as a child on the autistic spectrum and was given a statement by his local authority detailing his academic, social and therapeutic needs. He also joined a local mainstream primary school which recruited a one-to-one learning support assistant to support Ray. At first, everything seemed great because on the surface, the school wanted to offer inclusive provision for Ray to access the curriculum and participate in school activities. However, in reality, within Ray’s classroom and wider school environment, the understanding of autistic behaviours and his learning style was not there.
Excluded and left behind
In the end Ray was asked to spend most of his time away from his classroom to learn in a private room with his learning support assistant. He would spend around 80 per cent of his time reading books and drawing pictures alone, whilst his classmates undertook timetabled activities together throughout the school day. To make matters worse, invitations to class birthday parties and playdates began to dry up and he became more and more isolated as the years passed by. Ray’s parents felt he had been rejected and misunderstood by the school because he could not conform. He was simply being himself: a non-violent, inquisitive and self-conscious wide-eyed boy, unable to completely read social situations. Every day presented a new challenge for Ray’s parents, who over the years constantly battled to get the school community to recognise their son’s needs.
Fortunately, Ray’s parents refused to give up and like many parents in similar situations, entered a lengthy legal tribunal for his transfer to a school with an autistic friendly environment. The dark cloud hovering over Ray’s education eventually lifted when his parents won their legal case. Luckily for me, Ray became our ray of sunshine when he joined the school I worked in.
Ray’s presence was immediately felt in my class. This bright, peaceful and charming young boy could not believe his new surroundings as he looked around in amazement during his first few weeks. All of a sudden, Ray was with other children presenting their own unique traits; he had full access to the National Curriculum through multi-sensory learning, and access to integrated therapies; he was exposed to visual timetables and SEN resources to help clarify activities and set expectations.
Understandably, because Ray had been through a lot of rejection in the past and was unable to express his feelings, he felt anxious about being not being good enough to remain in the school. He would repeatedly ask me: “Am I being a good boy?”, “Can we have a class photo with me in it? or “Are you happy with me?” It was heart breaking to hear about and experience his fears and vulnerability. Ray had been isolated and conditioned by educators to feel like he was misbehaving for being autistic.
Over time, with lots of support and reassurance, Ray released some of his anxieties and started to believe in his abilities. His artistic side, humour, quirky personality and kind nature began to shine. He slowly improved his social skills and he continues to be assured that it is OK to feel and express different emotions. Ray is now set to move up a class group in September and has come a long way since starting at the school.
I am incredibly proud to work with children like Ray. Every day I learn about what it means to go through turbulent life events at a young age, and come through it all with immense courage, inner strength, humility and a grateful heart. In Ray’s case, there was a lack of understanding and insufficient special needs training at his mainstream school. Cases like this are becoming more familiar within schools, so much so that the Department for Education recently called for “a sound understanding of special educational needs” to be delivered in university training before student teachers can become qualified class teachers. This is not to say all mainstream schools show a disservice to children with autism because many schools provide excellent inclusive SEN learning environments. In some cases, though, children simply cannot access mainstream school because their needs are simply greater than can be provided for in a class of 30 kids – not because of the school.
A great deal needs to be done to raise awareness of autism and other specific learning needs within schools, and the community. This applies to the UK and internationally. After experiencing Ray’s journey, I hope that one day we come to a stage in education where every child is treated equally and has the support and compassion they truly deserve.
Nicky Harvey is an SEN teacher, therapist and writer. She blogs at:
N.B. The name of the child has been changed and the child pictured is not the one discussed in the article.