OPEN LETTER - Victorian Shadow Education Minister, Dr Matthew Bach
On behalf of the Board of The Autistic Realm Australia (TARA) Anna Cristina, Kylieanne Derwent, Kathy Isaacs and Yolande McNicoll, respond to Victorian Shadow Education Minister, Dr Matthew Bach's opinion piece in The Age - January 30, 2023 "School refusal numbers are soaring. Parents need to show tough love"
It is the view of The Autistic Realm Australia that parent shaming causes further harm to families who are already suffering emotional and financial hardship due to their child's inability to attend School.
Every child at some stage of their life begs their parents for a day off School; because they haven't done their homework, fought with a friend, are tired or because it is the dreaded sports day. These kids can typically be negotiated with and motivated by rewards and consequences.
But a growing number of children are so distressed at the thought of attending School that nothing will entice them to leave the safety of home. No rewards, bribery or punishment will induce these children to attend a place where they don't feel safe, and their emotional, sensory and/or academic needs are not met. This is a condition we call 'School Can't'.
Bach says, "Some school refusers will swear at their parents, others kick – one parent showed me the deep bite marks. I said, "Well done, we'll take it from here." Because, hard as it was, these parents got their children to School. And that's the most important thing."
This simplistic answer to 'just make them go' does not address the Why of School Can't. And without knowing the Why, it is irresponsible to suggest such a blanket solution to what, for many children, is a complex problem and, for some, is a mental health crisis. If the solution were this simple, a senate committee would not be currently investigating School Can't.
Shadow Minister Bach, schools cannot 'take it from there' when they are integrative institutions that only use suspensions and other behavioural strategies instead of investigating causes.
Schools cannot 'take it from there' when they lack the resources and training to support Autistic children and their families. Our members told us “ You spend hours researching because there is no one to support you, and you don't know what to do next"
Schools 'taking it from there' means that children end up traumatised and families distressed and financially disadvantaged. Society loses resources, for instance, mothers who could contribute to the workforce if schools supported the needs of their Autistic children, instead of punishing them for behaviour that is a scream for help and not disobedience, deliberate or manipulative.
The Shadow Minister also needs to recognise that inclusive education does not just mean mainstream.
The Autistic Realm Australia compiled a survey in Nov-Dec 2022 answered by over 240 respondents representing more than 450 Autistic children.
The top 3 reported reasons why these children experience School Can't were:
49% The child's sensory needs were not being met at School
32% The child's Autism (and/or other disability) was not being supported at school
37% The child's academic needs were not being met at School
**(TARA's report on the survey will be made publicly available once our Submission has been published by the Senate Select Committee).
Our results are evident: students' needs are not being met, including the most basic need - for safety. Rather than 'tough love', which many of our respondents had tried at the advice of their School and now deeply regret, children need to feel safe.
Our survey demonstrated that it is School that causes School Can't for Autistic children. Not all schools by any means: there are wonderful, supportive teachers and schools where presumably, children have occasional School Can't. We know this because 32.4% of respondents told us that moving to a new school meant their child no longer demonstrated School Can't.
At present, the states do not record enough relevant and specific data, so it is impossible to know how many such schools there are or how many children they teach and what they do differently.
We know firsthand that School Can't is debilitating to families. Parents (usually mothers) can find it almost impossible to hold a full-time job because "You don't know how many times somebody will call you to pick up your child or, even worse, when they are so distressed their anxiety manifests externally, and they get suspended."
School can’t is complex and cannot be solved by a "We build it and they must come" mentality.