Open letter to those who think autistic kids should not be allowed to disturb mainstream education settings

As usual I’m coming into the discussion “late”. The conversation about inclusion of autistic students in our nations classrooms has been at the forefront of all my social media feeds this week, and I’ve been sitting here, swinging between trying to take it all in and trying to avoid it.

The conversation is overwhelming for me, on a number of levels. Firstly, it’s emotionally overwhelming because I am a parent to autistic kids that the education system has failed and who were/are homeschooled as a result. I have seen the impact on my own children that our education system has on autistic kids and it is heartbreaking to have you all theorising about it and blaming my kids and their peers for something that has been done to them.

It is also emotionally overwhelming because I keep seeing people saying it’s “safer” to segregate, but as part of my work I meet and talk to people (parents and children) who have first hand experience of segregated learning environments in which children are routinely abused as part of “behaviour management strategy”, and I can tell you that those stories will never leave me. People will tell you it is “safer for everyone” if autistic kids are kept with their own kind, but I can tell you with complete certainty that it is not safer for the kids who are left in segregated settings to be tied up, locked in cupboards, dragged along the ground by their wrists, sat upon, and all kinds of other horrific treatments. Not that these abuses don’t happen in mainstream settings too…. but segregation is not safer.

It’s mentally overwhelming because of the sheer volume of information involved in discussing the issue with any clarity and intelligence. Everyone has an opinion. It is simple to just spout out “My friends cousins brother in law has an autistic kid and blah blah judgement criticism, they shouldn’t be in the classroom”, but that is not a valid argument. There is a wealth of real evidence out there for anyone to read, but instead advocates are left having to engage with ‘he said she said’ rhetoric that even the gold medal olympic debate team would have trouble refuting in the face of the conviction of the mildly informed. It’s exhausting.

It’s sensorily overwhelming because of the physical response I have to the emotional and mental processing I have to do as an autistic person, so it actually takes me longer to wade through it all and formulate an articulate response. My executive function is also impacted and this means communication and interaction is more draining for me than usual.

And the irony that the way I respond as an autistic person to this conversation is the same way autistic kids in classrooms respond to our education system is not lost on me. Autistic kids feel overwhelmed and out of their depth in our neurotypically set up class rooms, so they use communication strategies and behaviours that are then used as the  reason non-autistic society is now debating their right to share space with them.

It’s all completely overwhelming. But today I want to let you know how I, an autistic parent to autistic children, am feeling about all your comments and opinions about our lives and our right to access education. Honestly, it seems like you all want to put a “please do not disturb” sign on our entire education system.

Thing is, …… I get it. I get that teachers don’t want to be hurt at work. I get that it’s tough to deal with challenging behaviours in the classroom. I get that it’s confronting to be faced with difference and diversity when we all like the security of familiarity.

There is another side, though. I get how those autistic kids are feeling too. I feel their frustration at being expected to conform to a standard of normality that is unattainable. I get that they are tired of trying to communicate and being unheard day in and day out over and over again. I know that it is soul destroying to be forced to comply with instructions you don’t understand the reason for or the actual steps that need to be taken in order to comply.

See, the reason autistic kids are seen to be a problem is that they don’t comply. They can’t comply. And our education system relies on compliance for its smooth running. There is stuff to be learned. It has to be learned on a set timeframe. It has to be tested and outcomes recorded. If your presence in a classroom puts this process in jeopardy, you are an inconvenience. If you are an inconvenience you have to be managed.

Yes, I’ve seen that word used to refer to autistic students. Managed. And I’ve seen autistic students managed right out of schools through a tactic of repeated micro exclusions,  suspensions and expulsions. Blaming the child along the way for behaving inappropriately and for being disruptive and unwilling to learn or try or improve.

But, you know, I’ve yet to meet an autistic person who loves to draw negative attention to themselves. In fact, most of us will do just about anything to avoid that. Many of us have spent our whole lives trying to do things that help us blend in and appear to be just like you in order to avoid the stigma, bullying and exclusion that comes at your hands with negative attention resulting from being deemed to be different.

So you know what it tells me when an autistic kid resorts to “challenging behaviours” at school? It tells me they are distressed. It tells me they’ve tried every subtle, conformist style of communication they have access to as they’ve tried to let those around them know what help they need and those have not worked. The adults around them in the school have failed to understand what the child needs and now the child is distressed and using last resort methods to be heard. At which point they are punished and society at large feels it is their place to weigh in and point out that they are inconvenient and therefore should be put somewhere else where they won’t bother anyone who actually matters. “Please do not disturb.”

But there are some things that need to be disturbed, especially when at the heart of the issue is the fact that all children have a right to access education alongside their peers, and there is a simple solution here. It’s not complicated to prevent challenging behaviours from happening…. it simply involves doing what it takes to understand each individual students needs, then making sure those needs are met. Stop with the power plays and trying to enforce compliance for the convenience of authority figures, and start being open to seeing all children as valuable and capable. Stop demanding kids learn on the teachers schedule and start engaging with them at their own pace and level of interest. Stop insisting children refrain from behaving like …. children…. and start structuring the learning environment in ways that don’t assault their senses and require them to show levels of self control and focus most adults would struggle with. Challenging behaviours- which really are just distressed kids ways of communicating- will stop if these things are done. And altering the learning environment in these kinds of ways will benefit all students, not only the autistic ones.

I’ve written and spoken about these issues before. If you’d like to learn more you can visit:

7 thoughts on “Open letter to those who think autistic kids should not be allowed to disturb mainstream education settings

  1. Brilliant post!
    Autism and those affected by it challenges and questions the fundamental values of society and life. And you’ve identified the problem and said it, the system doesn’t want that, it wants people who can comply, not people who exposes their problems. By targeting on autistic individuals, they are merely diverting the true problem. Great analysis!

  2. This resonates with me so much, as a mother of an autistic child. I am often so overwhelmed with some peoples ignorance,the inaccuracy of what they believe, lack of empathy and emotional intelligence in this area that I actually resort to saying nothing, because it is so exhausting to try and explain to such people where they are going wrong and try to educate them on what is really going on with our children, where they are going wrong and where their ‘knowledge” is so inaccurate.
    The quotes below is one of my favourites and sums up the base line root cause of the issues Michelle writes about, it’s my Facebook TAG as I feel it’s more important to say this than to write anything about me.

    “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”
    Alexander Heiger

  3. I had a hard time in 5th and 6th grades. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 5th grade. I got in trouble for everything, even sharpening my pencil! I didn’t [couldn’t] ask for help. If I didn’t have a pencil or the right book, I’d just sit there. I would ignore people talking to me in the hall. My teacher didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t either. It was hard. Looking back 11 years later, I realize I couldn’t help the way I was. This is very insightful and relates well to me. Thank you.

  4. I remember this little burst of yuk that came through the media, and it brought up many emotions I didn’t express to anyone at the time. After 3 years of homeschooling my son – since he was effectively ‘managed out’ of the classroom – I still feel the hurt of him being cut off from his close community of friends because he was unable to cope with the classroom environment as it was. He is far less stressed, and happier overall homeschooling, but he misses the daily connection and play with friends that I just can’t offer. Thanks for writing this Michelle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *