Our special children aren’t just special, they are also unique and need an individualised approach to inclusion
Having three children, each with special needs and each with vastly different educational requirements, the mainstream or special school debate is one that I have considered in great detail. Periodically, the politicians will try to resolve this matter with broad, sweeping pronouncements of generalised principals: “inclusion wherever possible”, “state of the art special schools”, or “specially trained teachers in all schools”. However, experience drawn from my own family tells me that there is no “one size fits all” answer.
My eldest child, Rose, who is eleven years old, has Asperger’s syndrome, is socially and academically able, and attends a very large state high school. Her first few weeks there proved difficult, graduating as she did from a small and cosy primary school. The school has an excellent special needs resource, an established bullying procedure, and understanding, well trained teachers. In this environment, Rose is flourishing, and I cannot ever envisage a situation where I would have to consider special education for her.
My middle child, Daisy, has severe learning difficulties (the result of a rare genetic syndrome). She has developed very slowly, both physically and mentally, and she requires one to one assistance for all tasks. Even with such limited educational scope, we have been able to provide some mainstream inclusion for her. Daisy attends an excellent special school for three days of the week, where she receives physiotherapy, speech therapy and hydrotherapy and has close medical monitoring. For the remainder of the week, she attends the local primary school. She is not able to follow the mainstream curriculum in any meaningful way, but she has made age-appropriate friends within her community. She is dearly loved in our village, and it is often commented upon that the classmates that she joins for two days each week have benefited from the experience of knowing her, displaying emotional maturity beyond their years.
We were pioneers in our community in insisting that Daisy had mainstream experience. Of course, this is quite usual for children with mild or even moderate difficulties, but the school had never before been asked to consider someone as severely affected by learning disabilities. Would it then follow that we should insist on mainstream schooling for our youngest child, Lenny, who has classic autism?
Lenny does not have nearly the degree of learning disability that Daisy does. His socialisation, however, is severely affected by his condition. His senses are impaired and he can be induced to “meltdown” state by the most seemingly innocuous things: smells, sounds of certain pitches, sounds coming from more that one direction, clutter, direct eye-contact (you name it!).
We did try him in mainstream nursery for a term or two, but it proved both difficult, bordering on painful, for him, and highly disruptive for the other pre-school children. A specialist autism resource with low stimulus design, small classrooms and specially trained teaching staff was the only answer. Lenny now loves school, despite having to spend almost two hours each day travelling.
If any one of my children were my only child, I might mistakenly believe that the answer we had found for that particular child was the right and only answer. The point is, though, that there can be no one answer. No two children with special needs are the same. Their needs are “outside the norm” but not always in the same direction. If the real needs of the child are to be adequately met, then those needs must be examined on a very individual basis.
Sharon King writes an online blog called My Imperfect Family which is updated weekly at: www.wakefieldexpress.co.uk
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.