Educating children: Autism

It is fair to say that our diagnoses of people living within the autism spectrum is growing – partially as our awareness of the variety and dimensions of the phenomenon expands. What is also the case is that this is another example of the necessity of the priority of human dignity over technical solutions.

We increasingly focus our attention on the education of children through some form of intellectual or skills attainment – whether through NAPLAN, Year 12 results or the ATAR. What we might be ignoring to our peril is the need for our children to be thoroughly grounded in the imperative of respect for others.

These days we are faced with an environment where identifying a person as living within the autism spectrum has become a label that they carry with them, and which all too often has impacts on the quality of the education and health care that they receive.

While a valid diagnosis and consideration of the particular make-up of an individual’s autism is vital in designing an appropriate learning or health plan – too often it is also a label used to exclude.

What we now know from emerging research is that unless those with autism are also linked into social spaces, neighbourhoods and societies, the major benefits of good diagnosis are truncated. As with most unusual educational, health needs, or forms of disability, isolation from the community is the major barrier to success either personally or professionally.

The risks of isolation extend beyond the immediate person living with autism to their families and carers. Recent studies clearly show that those with carer responsibilities frequently have poor health outcomes, much lower standards of living and often live precariously at the margins of society.

Paradoxically, prior to widespread diagnosis of a range of physical, genetic and psycho-social conditions such as autism, our society was much more accepting of diversity than is currently the case. Because societies were more connected – based on streets, neighbourhoods and suburbs – we all knew people who were related to someone with a disability – and there was a stronger sense of dignity and support.

While none of us would return to such a time where excellent health and education were the province of the few or the lucky, we can still recognise when we are failing as a community. We have advanced in awareness, diagnoses and service delivery but have we also lost a distinctly human dimension – a capacity to value diversity?

Educating children means asking a whole variety of questions – not only about academic progress or the capacity for employment; but about what kind of world we want to live in or what kind of people we want to be. If our children do not learn to cope with, and engage with, differences as children, why would we assume it will come to them as divine inspiration as adults?

As Christians one of our prime goals is the creation and maintenance of a community – one characterised by inclusion, especially the inclusion of those with particular vulnerabilities. Jesus described this as the Kingdom; he defined membership of the Kingdom as being determined by need not by achievement. If we hold ourselves to be members of this community we are obliged to welcome others, most particularly those whose vulnerabilities tend to place them at the margins of society – anything else is a violation of human dignity and of the call to be a community in relationship with Christ.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Are my communities (work, social activities, schools, parishes) places where those who are ‘different’ will feel welcome?
  2. Am I an advocate for those who are described as ‘different’?
  3. Do I stand alongside those who are labelled as ‘different’ in some way?
  4. What messages about difference to I communicate to my children?