Pauline Hanson set several cats among flocks of pigeons with her recent comment on autistic children in classrooms.
Canberrans were immediately reminded of the notorious 2015 ‘boy in the cage’ controversy that erupted when a 10 year old autistic boy, a student in a special needs unit primary school was placed in a two by two metre blue metal pool fencing cage, sited in the classroom and constructed at a cost of $5195.
The autistic boy was disruptive and destructive, and reportedly, at times, violent, on one occasion struggling so violently that he broke the lock on the cage.
The story, broken by the Canberra Times, caused a flurry of action from the office of then Territory Labor minister for education Joy Burch, coincidentally also the then minister for disability, who expressed her ‘absolute disappointment and horror’.
It also came out at the time that ACT schools regularly employed what were termed ‘withdrawal spaces’ to manage the behaviour of children with special needs, usually disruptive or, in extreme cases, violent towards the teacher and other students.
ACT public schools are proud of their teaching records and also the fact that the ACT offers a college style of teaching in Years 10 to 12 which, many parents affirm, makes the transition to university less challenging. The downside is that teachers in many schools, even those with ‘special needs’ units, have to cope with children with behavioural problems that do impact not only on the rest of the class but the teacher.
So Hanson’s comment, stated less cogently than it might have been, actually contained a core of truth: some children with special needs are perfectly adapted, and accepted, among their peers; Some are not, which is how the ‘boy in the cage’ story emerged.
Teachers themselves are divided on whether ‘special needs’ students should be integrated into classes and many have had first-hand experience of having to deal with similar situations. One teacher commented that classrooms, in her opinion, were not as problematic as playgrounds, where bullying often occurred, and that there was not, in fact, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model.
Each child’s case had to be considered and the wider the range of diversity and ability of students in a class, the greater the pressure on the teacher and the greater the ability needed.
Pauline Hanson has been excoriated and roundly denounced for insensitive views in the past and no doubt this will continue, but if her comments regarding autistic students lead to better teaching policies, then she will have done Australian educators a service.
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