Autism: a growing challenge in our classrooms

There appears to be no shortage of stories from the world’s classrooms in which a child with autism and a teacher have clashed. Often this results from a lack of understanding of the condition or lack of support for both student and teacher.

The Educator has recently reported the shocking story of the student who was caged for the disruptive behaviour caused by his autistic spectrum disorder; and the concerns of the AEU over a lack of funding to support students with disabilities, including autism. 

Today, another horrendous story of a Canadian school principal’s treatment of a student with autism.

The Province reports that Gerard Macintosh has admitted to professional misconduct after an incident where an 8th grade autistic girl asked him for an eraser during class. The principal brandished a pocket knife and told the girl “here, use this to erase your life.”

Macintosh has been suspended for two months, a punishment that some are questioning as being very lenient. The principal also admitted to telling grade 7 and 8 students that he will be dressing as a paedophile for Halloween. 

While there is no clear evidence in this case that the treatment of the girl was because of her autism, the incident is reported to have left her extremely distressed. Those with the condition are often highly sensitive to the actions of others as they do not always understand nuances of communication. 

An Arts Hub article highlights how even medics have been known to dismiss autistic children as lacking value. Speaking at a writer’s conference in Brisbane, Judy Sharp told how she was advised by a doctor in 1993 to put away her son and forget about him. Tim’s communication struggles led him to art as a way to ‘speak’ and has transformed his life. 

There are, of course, success stories in the challenges facing teachers with autistic students but they often require support. 

An article in The Australian earlier this year reported that the number of students on the autistic spectrum has increased by a third in a decade and that three-quarters of them are in mainstream schools. 

The chief executive of Children with Disability Australia, Stephanie Gotlib, says that teachers are under “phenomenal pressure” with inadequate training which sometimes leads to unacceptable behaviour of teaching staff. 

Meanwhile Jacqueline Roberts of Griffith University’s Autism Centre of Excellence says that with the right support students with autism can be highly successful but warns that modern teaching environments can be harder to cope with for these students than traditional classroom set-ups. 

While there is no justification for the actions of teachers and principals such as those that have made headlines for their abuse of students with autism, they have highlighted the case for more support, education and funding for this, and many other conditions which teachers are increasingly encountering in their classrooms.