Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life… We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.
These are the words spoken by Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP on the 9th July 2015 at the Education Reform Summit. These words make sense; society should offer its citizens the opportunity to be educated, the knowledge of great thinkers and the preparation for life as well-adjusted contributing adults. These words relate to a compulsory element of society that almost all of us can relate to – school – but one that does not make sense to everyone who attends it. My daughter Natasha (18) and nephew Mark (21) are such individuals. My daughter and nephew have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and not only did they miss out on years of secondary education, they did not receive the preparation or the qualifications they needed in order to secure a fulfilling career. More importantly, they were not taught how to overcome challenges but were encouraged to endure them. Natasha spent a lot of time in secondary school hiding in the toilets away from everyone else because the anxiety induced by social interaction was too much to bear. When her hiding place was discovered the toilets were locked and so she took to sitting in a park, cold and vulnerable. Similarly, Mark walked miles to school each morning to avoid the interaction on the school bus and often spent his school days in the woods. School did not make sense to them. How can we possibly instil a love of knowledge in pupils with AS when the very environment in which we ask them to learn instils them with fear? It is almost like asking an individual with arachnophobia to sit in a classroom full of spiders and learn and be inspired at the same time. Who does this make sense to?
Natasha once said to me “We can’t cope with mixing with other kids at break and lunchtime, so they put us all in a room together with other kids who can’t cope. Where’s the sense in that?” This insight is what motivated my research, to find out just how pupils with AS experience the support in secondary school. How do they make sense of it? How can they teach us to make it work for them? Natasha and Mark are experts in their own experiences, but their voices are not heard, because no one asked them what could be done to help them access the education that Nick Gibb speaks of. Nick Gibb’s voice is heard, in fact, a quick google search of his quote returned 4,110 hits in 1.38 seconds. However, we need to speak to the very people who experience education. We need to ask, to listen and to hear their voices. Not listening comes with consequences that transcend the right to an education. It places children and young people in vulnerable and potentially dangerous situations; it impacts on pupils, parents’ and families’ mental health; it puts pressure on relationships as parents and siblings deal with the stress of coping with an unhappy family member and it will undoubtedly impact on future relationships, career prospects and wellbeing.
It does not make sense to me that society is missing out on the skills and talents of its neurodiverse population. My daughter is awesome. She is level headed, calmly finds solutions to problems, is very creative and has a fierce sense of justice; desirable skills that many employers seek. My nephew is fabulous, has created 40 different languages, yes 40!, is practically a linguistic genius. Yet both have no qualifications because no matter how hard they tried, they could not cope with the demands of the school environment and both now suffer depression and experience isolation as a result.
Attending school should not be an indicator of a successful education, because many pupils with Asperger’s do attend yet suffer in silence. If Education is the engine of our economy and the foundation of our culture, and if it really is an essential preparation for adult life, then it is the responsibility of contemporary society to ask and understand and to listen and empathise with how each and every one of its citizens makes sense of society because silence is not always golden.