Has feminism got something to say about autism in education?

The following post is based on recent experiences I have had working around Manchester in schools for autism and related conditions. The comments, whilst critical of certain events and incidents, are not meant to be disparaging towards individuals (non of whom are named here!) but as a contribution to knowledge in the education sector – especially in schools that provide for children and young adults with particular educational and emotional needs (SEN, EBD, PRUs etc).

Recently as an experienced supply teaching assistant, I was introduced to a new class of five upper primary age autistic spectrum children. We had a great time, laughs and fun: few dramas (there are always some!) . The class was mostly non- or only partially-verbal with the exception of one boy. They were mostly a sensorily responsive group. The relationship with the children and adults was mostly trusting, supportive, professional and appropriate.

However, upon being introduced to one young (mostly non-verbal) girl, I was told that she loved socialising with new people – especially men, and that she was a ‘flirt’.

In this blog-post I want to raise questions as to the significance, purpose and ethical consequences of non-consesual labelling of young people in educational environments: especially where they affect the treatment of those with particular needs that restrict that individual’s capacity to independently respond to, understand, reject or accept these terms of identification.

In my experience, understanding is central to the effective integration, management and personal experience of people with autism – it’s a very social concern. Autism is not something that can be ‘cured’  or ‘improved’ within the individual. (although autism can develop and change with age and a common aim is to cope more independently with autism issues – learn more here)

Autism is typically challenging to deal with and to understand for both those with the condition and those in the sphere of its influence – whether incidentally, domestically, socially or professionally. It is a complex pattern of behaviours that is also often interconnected with other clinically identifiable physical, emotional and educational (or neuro-psychological) issues.

It is for these reasons that the introduction of social values and conventions into the classroom that allow the idea of a ‘flirt’ to exist and be used in an educational context, is something that I see as particularly troublesome. These issues also relate particularly to females with autism  who, in spite of mostly anecdotal evidence and reasoning (see here for more), are undeniably represented in much smaller numbers within schools for autism-related conditions. This coupled with the over-representation of women in the educational sector (and in my current situation as the only male of five work collegues in the classroom) seems to highlight a superficial and initial concern for a feminist perspective.

Some initial questions we might begin with:

  1. Is it ethically or morally useful to label a child as a ‘flirt’ when that primary age child has a limited way to understand and communicate their feelings about such things?
  2. Who is this labelling of benefit to and if not the child concerned, why is it happening?
  3. What use is this labelling to the adults?
  4. Does it matter that these remarks are made as long as the child is safe, cared for and educated to the highest possible standard?
  5. Is it right to assume that a child doesn’t understand or that they won’t mind?
  6. Are there any concerns that are particular to females or autism compared to a comparable situation for boys in a mainstream school? Are there any parallels?

(This article will be followed up with subsequent observations)

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