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It's not that easy, huh?
Our “Not Included, Not Engaged, Not Involved” report highlighted the impact of unlawful school exclusion on the mental health and wellbeing of autistic children and their families.
The sense of isolation, anxiety and stress expressed by our respondents is now, to a greater or lesser extent, being experienced by us all. The Covid-19 crisis has brought home to many, the extent to which we rely on social connectedness, routine and certainty. There is a unique opportunity here for schools and policy makers to have insight into the detrimental consequences for children and families of unlawful exclusion.
The parallels are very real. The sudden imposition of the loss of the structure and opportunities that school brings has an immediate effect on children and families. Whilst acknowledging that school can be stressful for many autistic learners, it is none the less an anchor, a fixture that punctuates daily experiences. It is cyclical, predictable and certain. For that to suddenly and indeterminately go, is disorientating and for many, triggering. Thu, often, transferring the “challenge” to families who have limited emotional and physical resources to enable them to support their child.
It brings social and, often, economic instability to families who have no immediate support network to call on. A few short weeks ago this would have been a hypothetical scenario but it is now the collective reality of many.
Whether this shared experience results in greater empathy remains to be seen.
The very nature of school exclusion unlawful or otherwise means that there is rarely, if ever the opportunity for preparedness. Again, many of us have felt the impact of the lack of readiness for this radical change to our daily lives. There is, rightly, concern for the longer term impact on the health and wellbeing of all citizens. This magnitude of anxiety is, reported by autistic people on a regular basis and in relation to what might be considered by non-autistic people as far less significant daily transitions. There is legislation, research and resources that seek to support autistic people through these micro and macro transitions yet they are sporadically applied, often due to the siloed nature of services that people engage with across their lifespan.
Scottish Autism and our partners in this campaign, Children in Scotland and National Autistic Society Scotland continue to work to highlight the significant disadvantage that results from unlawful school exclusion. We are making progress but it can be frustratingly slow. We have now seen how swift, social and legislative action can be taken at a time of national crisis. We need to learn from that. That is not to suggest that every issue merits a crisis level response or that due diligence and the impact of change does not need to be assessed and managed however, it does demonstrate that where societal need is responded to by political action and will, change can happen.
Of course we all hope the current interventions are short term and that there are different economic implications for longer term sustainable change but it does demonstrate the capacity of the system to change and change it must.
National priorities have shifted almost overnight but we can’t lose sight of the ongoing challenges and inequalities autistic people and their families faced prior to Covid-19 and that will, for many, be exacerbated by the current crisis.
It is not realistic, nor would it be right to seek to challenge local authorities and Scottish Government to the extent that we would do if we were not in the grip of a public health crisis. There is however the opportunity to encourage the empathy and humanity that autistic children and their families need to not just cope, but to thrive within our education and other societal systems.
April is Autism Awareness Month and there is a wonderfully sobering post that is doing the rounds on social media. It depicts three autistic children, they are each holding a sign which collectively poses the question:
“The whole world is overwhelmed by a sudden change of routine, it’s not that easy, huh?” (Origin unknown).
It certainly is not.