Autism and Education: A Reality Check – Part 1

This week as part of April’s Autism Awareness week, we look at education, specifically unschooling, and why we feel that it offers children like PanKwake at the higher end of the autistic spectrum the best possible future…Today we begin with…

What is ‘suitable’ education? At least in terms of UK law. Section 7 of the Education Act of 1996 says:

Compulsory education

7: Duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—

a: to his age, ability and aptitude, and

b: to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

Just some of the many resources we offer PanKwake to facilitate learning...
Just some of the many resources we offer PanKwake to facilitate learning…

In other words…it is the duty of ALL parents, even those who delegate the responsibility to schools, to ensure that their child receives an education that is ‘suitable’ to his/her ‘age’… ‘ability’… ‘aptitude’…and ‘any special educational needs.’ Is it any wonder that so many people choose to simply put their blind faith in ‘education experts’? But the wording of this section of the law is an appropriate distinction for special needs children and especially for those on the ‘high-functioning’ end of the spectrum.

During our recent battles with Islington’s Disabled Children’s Team to get PanKwake the services she was entitled to, this became a huge point of contention. The care plan that her social worker presented to us first included the inflammatory wording…”I need to be in education.” When I pointed to the law and our rights to educate otherwise, she changed the wording to ‘age appropriate education.’ Yet again I brought out this law to show her that especially for special needs children there is MUCH more to it than just that.

But before I move on to that, first I want to explain a bit about…age appropriate. One of the first people to look at the issue of how children learn and develop was a psychologist named Jean Piaget ( He believed that children moved through four stages, but I won’t go into the details of those here (follow that link to begin to understand his theories). What I want to point is that Piaget never placed any ‘age appropriate’-ness on the stages. In fact, he specifically argued that while the stages were sequential (i.e. one follows the other and none can be skipped over), every child was an individual and moved through them at his/her own pace. Furthermore, he felt that a child should not be ‘forced’ to learn things that were beyond his stage of development.

The problem though is that education is a SYSTEM. And systems are NOT about the best interests or needs of the individual but of the whole, of the system itself. So when Piaget began to filter into the educational systems in the mid-1950s, there was no room for ‘pupils’ to move at their own pace. So they began to adopt ‘age-appropriate’ guidelines based upon theories that were ‘ageless.’ Basically threw out the baby and kept the dirty bath water. Thus pre-operational is Key Stage One in this country and ends at age seven. Period. Full stop. By Year 2, you are expected to have developed an attention span and self-control necessary to sit quietly on your chair while you are ‘taught.’

But for those with high proprioceptive needs like PanKwake this is a living Hades. They need to be moving…constantly. Their minds cannot learn when they are battling against their body’s need to jump, run or climb. Even with a recognition of this need, the modifications which most schools use to address SEN codes such as exercise balls instead of hard chairs are too often viewed by teachers as distracting for other students…rewarding bad behavior.

As a result as Mister Spock said… “The good of the many outweighs the needs of the few…or the one.” The hard truth is that in a classroom of thirty students with one adult (or at best two), one child does not matter. The system matters. Keeping order matters. In that situation, your child’s learning style takes the back burner…matters very little other than lip service to meeting special needs. It becomes a tug of war between you and them with that ‘age-appropriate’ taking precedence. If his/her peers are ready to read, then your child must be also. Otherwise, she gets left behind. Which then becomes fodder for bullying…dummy, stupid, you can’t read.

This becomes an even bigger issue if like PanKwake, your child is ‘high functioning.’ In many ways, high functioning is just another way of saying…your child don’t look different. And if she don’t look different then the expectation is that she should just learn to act like everyone else. That is the bleak reality of thousands (tens of thousands) of children and young people, who are at that higher end of the autistic spectrum. Their ‘abilities, aptitudes and special needs’ are sacrificed on the altar of ‘age appropriate’ in order to meet the needs of the many.

Home education, education otherwise…and especially unschooling offer an alternative…but that is getting ahead of myself. More tomorrow…


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