My baby brother is 16. He is autistic and yes, there is a future for him. It took some time for my mum and I to see the signs but when he was diagnosed, it all became clear. Through it all, we have never once thought that this limits him. Instead, we believe that given time, he will be better than he was before.
Working in special education doesn’t mean that we are teaching students who are underachieving. It means that we are teaching students who might need more processing time. Therefore, as teachers and leaders within SEN, it is important that our expectations remain high, that classwork remains personalised and challenging.
I understand perfectly that some students with Aspergers or ASD might be non verbal. For these students, progress might mean being able to use PECs (Pupil Exchange Communication System) effectively to communicate their wants or needs. However, regardless of need, we must find a way to push them one step further in their journey.
At the heart of this journey is the knowledge of who these young people are. What are their likes / dislikes? What do they repeatedly talk about? At the sound of which word, do they begin stimming with excitement? These are the signifiers. They are a sign of their motivators and something that we should take to heart. Who would have thought that my little brother’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine or our repeated journeys on DLR trains would ever be more than that? For many years, it seemed a game, an amusement. To this day, his lists of presents are usually started with another request for a Hornby Train to add to his collection. When he was old enough and thoughtful enough to answer what he wanted to be, his answers would be simple and quick: train driver! So many of my students today have the same answer. Regardless of skill, many of them are so fascinated with the tracks and how they can make this a profession. Yet, so often teachers can dismiss the dream because they seem to come from some place of automaticity rather than careful thought.
When the time came for my brother to start to apply for sixth form, he didn’t quibble or dance about. He knew instinctively that he wanted to study BTEC Engineering because he would get to work on trains. My elation and pride was undeniable not only because he knew what he wanted but because in one way or another, he had been getting ready for this his whole life. When we went with him to tour a possible Sixth Form, he was naming the equipments he saw and telling my mum about their uses. He could easily reference old DT classes and his experience of the equipments. It was in this moment that the last two gifts he requested also made sense. He had wanted Snap Circuits so that he could experiment with creating light and sound in his room. No game, no experience seemed a coincidence and once again, I felt the magic in High Functioning Autism; that almost evolutionary quality of focus that can bring about extraordinary things.
Consequently, my belief once again that every Autistic student should be challenged was reinforced. Although there are many students who might not be able to complete the 5 or 8 GCSEs that are so prized, it is incumbent on how as educators to ensure that students are able to access as wide and as broad a curriculum that is possible. If they are passionate about ICT and Computing, give them the avenue to prepare for this. Even if they are not as strong in Maths and or English, these subjects must be priority as it prepares for a life beyond school and so the level at which this is taught must be appropriate and with sufficient challenge. Beyond this, having access to quality vocational teaching from KS3 must be a priority for all schools because if these students are given the opportunity to produce their Magnum Opus, their potential will be unleashed! They will fly!
I had a conversation with a colleague recently about our Autistic Learners. We agreed that if we said “they can’t, then they won’t”. Therefore, we must make sure that we identify how our learners need to improve and then provide the scaffolding and the steps to get them there. By doing this, we’ll be able to see our learners grow and find the hope and the future that is waiting for them.