I really did think that after three days of discussing issues of labelling on this blog there might be little more on this topic to discuss. That was until a colleague drew my attention to an article from today’s copy of the Belfast Telegraph from Northern Ireland. The banner headline above this particular feature shouts from the paper “Girl ‘excluded from education’ because schools can’t cater for her autism and dyspraxia”. Now I have long been wary of reporting in newspapers, having been misquoted on a couple of occasions myself, but nonetheless I felt obliged to read the article that my colleague had taken the effort to find.
Beneath a photograph of a teenager named Kirstie, who is seen smiling as she hugs a large black Labrador dog called Pepsi, the article reports that this young lady has not been to school for two years. Her mother states that:-
“It seems there’s no school that can cater for her at her academic level and at the same time understand her condition. The [education] board has labelled her aggressive and violent because of the way she has reacted to bullying or to people touching her, but what she needs is concern, understanding and awareness.”
Kirstie herself accepts that there were times when her own way of dealing with issues was perceived as problematic by schools:-
“I kept lashing out because no-one did anything about it,” she said. “Nobody was listening to me and when I sorted it out myself I kept getting into trouble.”
Sadly, what we have here is a traditional stand-off in which each party apportions blame to the other and therefore nothing gets resolved. In these situations I find it hard to believe that the education authorities and schools would not wish to see this state of affairs rectified and ensure that Kirstie gets the education she needs. Similarly, I understand that this is a mother and daughter under stress who need assurance that any provision made is going to be appropriate to Kirstie’s needs. They have clearly lost all faith in the education system and appear equally intransigent in their position. With a failure to compromise it looks as if this situation is destined to persist.
There is an interesting factor within this article that may be significant in understanding some of the issues. The reporter states that Kirstie had a late diagnosis of autism at the age of 13 years. She appears to have progressed through her primary schooling uninterrupted, though not without some problems from bullying. It appears that difficulties of accommodating Kirstie began only after her diagnosis.
This sent me wondering. Part of the discussion we have had about labelling has been centred around the notion that once a child receives an “official diagnosis”, this may make it easier for schools to understand individual needs and also to provide appropriate support. Clearly in Kirstie’s situation this has not proven to be the case. Can it be that the allocation of a label can have the opposite effect of that which has been suggested as beneficial by some during recent discussions on this blog? Might it be that it all depends on the label given?
I suspect that different labels have a different effect upon the ways in which teachers and other professionals anticipate working with children, though I admit that I am probably generalising here for effect. If a child is diagnosed as dyslexic, this may well be seen as manageable, after all most teachers feel quite confident about teaching reading and literacy skills (I know there is more to dyslexia than this) and may feel that with a little modification to their teaching they will cope. A little more challenge might come with a label such as physical disability which may mean changing the learning environment, and possibly some additional skills required around how to handle a child or assist with mobility issues. But then most children with a physical disability have few problems with conventional teaching and learning approaches, so maybe this is another “soft label”. Once we start applying labels such as autism spectrum disorder, social, emotional and behavioural difficulty, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder we start to enter a different domain. Here we can often detect panic setting in. These are no longer “soft labels” but for many teachers they appear to come with the kind of health warning we associate with packets of cigarettes – handling these kids can seriously damage your health!
Perhaps I am being facetious, or maybe just provocative. I suspect that the newspaper was adopting a similar approach in reporting this story. But on a serious note, here we have, for whatever reason, a young lady who has missed substantial educational opportunities for a prolonged period. This is not a matter for finding culprits, but it is certainly a situation in which there is at least one, and possibly several victims. Labelling Kirstie seems to have brought her nothing but grief. The way in which the newspaper is generalising labels such as dyspraxia and autism is also problematic, as it conveys a message that children with these labels are going to cause difficulties.
I like to think that the newspaper article will result in a positive outcome, with a local school offering Kirstie a place on the grounds that they see her as Kirstie and not as a label. Maybe that is too optimistic and the danger is that the demonising of this teenager and the “conditions” with which she is now associated will make her even less of an attractive proposition for local schools.
Ah well, I live in hope.
The link below will take you to the newspaper article