Why disability must not be confused with disobedience

By Andy Lusk

| 03 August 2012

The government’s expert adviser on behaviour Charlie Taylor, in giving evidence to MPs at the Education Select Committee this summer, advised that some pupils “show very extreme behaviour”. The published response to this from Barnardo’s - who know a thing or two about troubled and troubling children and families - was that a teacher’s job is not an easy one and they must look behind the behaviour and see the child. Such pupils may be acting out, not just acting up.

Returning to this depressingly familiar conceptual battle ground reminds us of Gore Vidal’s much used expression. This late acerbic and brilliant commentator coined the phrase ‘the United States of Amnesia’ and in public policy terms at least, we seem to have caught this particular American ailment. We have developed an unerring capacity for forgetting all we have learnt since the Curtis Report - which lead to the 1948 Children Act - about children, behaviour, parenting, violence in childhood and what to do about it.

It is, of course, possible to avoid the inconvenient efforts required to distinguish between children who have a real additional learning requirement (be that sufficient to attract a Statement of Special Educational Needs or not), children whose behaviour is indeed acting out and where the task is to reveal and respond to the antecedents, from those whose behaviours will respond to good class control and an engaging curriculum and who will be a handful until you have both.

The way it was achieved when I was at school was simple, without any concern for acting up, acting out or additional needs. If you misbehaved an adult with a large stick hit you with it. It was called caning and a form of control requiring no intelligence at all to administer. I experienced it several times and its effect on me was remarkably similar to effects upon my peers who also attracted punishment. We loathed school and wanted to escape as fast as possible from learning.

Nowadays we have higher expectations of what professionals, especially teachers, can and should achieve. It’s reasonable to expect such professionals to be capable of distinguishing between the troubled, the troublesome and those who have a real additional need.
A teacher with a pupil in their class with autism will not get very far until, at the very least, they understand that the child may receive what is said to them as literal.

Any puzzling or troubling behaviours may therefore result from this, rather than a child being possessed by some desire to upset the class or the teacher. As a charity, Ambitious about Autism has long argued the importance of not confusing disability with disobedience.

Learning how to identify such a pupil and react appropriately in one year, as so many training to be teachers are expected to do, is, at best, optimistic.

Andy Lusk is director of autism services at Ambitious about Autism. Follow Ambitious about Autism on Twitter https://twitter.com/#/ambitiousautism

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