This is possibly my most favourite photograph of Ian, ever. It shows him interacting with two children who were two years younger than he was. Ian was 6, and they were both 4. At that time, and in that place, inclusion was perfect. Ian had undergone three years of intensive one-to-one therapy; now he was just a child, in a sea of children. A small sea, admittedly. Well, as there were only about eight of them, perhaps more of a jolly, chuckling puddle. But Ian slid in without a ripple, and they all got on very well. As I wrote in my book “The other, smaller, children accepted Ian with love and generosity. He was a gentle giant among them, towering over even the tallest child in the class, and when he took their toys from them, they took them right back with frowns and complaints. Ian learned the give and take of normal play.”
These were children who had not yet formed their opinions as to what should or shouldn’t be, and also, as it happens, children who were not exposed to endless hours of mindless television or video-games – but that’s another argument. These were children who were open to Ian’s difference, children who were parented with the almost forgotten art of gentleness. I believe that had Ian stayed within that group, he would have been surrounded by children who would have formed a protective barrier around him as they all grew up together.
What one finds, however, with most attempts at inclusion, is that the child – no matter his disability or mental age – is put in a classroom of children the same age as himself, as if that should work. Oh, they’ll just get on? No, they just won’t. The autistic child has enough battles to face just getting through every single day, without having to endure peer-related aggravation.
What if special needs children were routinely mixed with younger children? What then? Who would it hurt? Ian didn’t know the children in his class were younger than himself. And even if he did know, he didn’t care. Is there such a stigma attached to a child being ‘held back’ that a parent might insist their child was thrown in with their peer group? I doubt it. And if an autistic child of five or six was mixed with three- and four-year-olds – children who are, as I wrote in my book, “not yet fixed in their attitudes as to what behaviour should or shouldn’t be” – what a huge benefit, not only to the autistic child but to the others as well, in learning to accept?
“Watching Ian blossom during this time, I realised that mixing an autistic child with typical kids of a younger age represented the very best that could be achieved. Certainly for Ian it had done him the world of good and he had learned to behave appropriately with the group in a way he never would have mixing with other autistic children or at home in an intensive home programme.”
There are other advantages to inclusion as well, and these centre around imitation. All children imitate the behaviour they see around them, good or otherwise, and this applies to autistic children just as much. I would rather home-school my child than have him bullied by normal kids because of forced inclusion with his own age-group, and I would rather home-school him than have him imitating the iffy behaviour of other special needs children. But that brings us neatly to the thorn-infested field of socialisation.
It must be the question most often asked of parents who choose to home-school their child: What about socialisation? Well, the most obvious answer is, that depends on your view of what constitutes socialisation. Mingling with people? Getting on in the wider world? Being able to stand up to your peers when they come at you in a group, intent on harm…? Home-schooled children often spend more time in the wider world, and learning from the wider world, than their peers, but have done so from an environment of safety. How can this be wrong?
Of course, inclusion may give the parents a skewed reality. In her excellent article on Facebook (http://phoebeholmes.com/2015/01/16/sometimes-inclusion-isnt-the-right-choice/), Phoebe Holmes writes “…inclusion can give this idea that your child, with all their struggles and difficulties, is still somewhat normal. That normal is still within reach. They could learn how to blend. They could be part of that normal group of kids. It’s a false sense of security, even for those of us who are quite aware of our child’s challenges.”
This is a very good point. It is part of human nature, I think, to veer towards the societal acceptance of what is ‘normal’, even when this might include placing a child in an environment beyond their capabilities. Given the intrinsic human need to fit in, there is also a need to have one’s children fit in. Of course, this idea flew out the window when a special needs child arrived, and we (parents of special needs kids) all have to wear the armour of someone who doesn’t care to fit in at all …
What I know is this: My autistic child behaved better when he didn’t mix with other autistic children – in all ways, not just in a less autistic fashion. My eldest child imitated the disturbed behaviour of other disturbed children when briefly attending a special school for the purposes of being psychologically assessed. My mother-in-law was pining and aging beyond her years living in a home for the elderly, showing that even mature adults absorb the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of other people they routinely mix with. I am happy to say that now, having moved closer to her family, she has been gifted a whole new lease of life, surrounded by her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren, and carries a brightness about her that we haven’t seen in years.
Who we mix with matters, sometimes more than we think.
Snippets and photograph from “From the Inside – raising, teaching, loving an autistic child” available from EmuInk.ie in Paperback and eBook.