Autistic boy in Canberra caged in classroom: What is the true story?

I have no knowledge about the autistic boy whose story has shocked readers of today's newspapers. I do not know about A.C.T. educational policy. But I do know what's happened in N.S.W.

Before the 1980s, there were special schools for children with intellectual disabilities. I worked on a casual basis at one of these wonderful schools, Greenacres SSP in Gwynneville, Wollongong, in the 1970s. I was very impressed with the small classes of six to eight children, a teacher's aide for every class, and the happy, peaceful learning environment that had been created. The teachers were specially trained and were paid accordingly. The children were happy; they had 'real' friends with whom they could communicate on the same level. 

But the N.S.W. government wanted to save money and that was the main reason these special schools were mostly shut down. Some misguided parents also thought their children would do better in a mainstream school. Some called these schools 'segregation'. 

And so children with intellectual disabilities - and quite often, behavioural difficulties as well, made worse by the addition of noise, crowds, pressure to perform and bright lights - were forced into mainstream classrooms, where the teacher had no training in special education. 

At first the government promised a teacher's aide for every child. But this proved too expensive and it was made clear that the aide's time would be cut until there was no aide at all. This is still the policy. A child with special needs is given an aide only as a temporary measure until the classroom teacher 'learns' to 'integrate' the child. 

Someone commented on one of today's newspaper articles, relating to the 'cage' built for the boy in Canberra for 'time out': "An autistic child in a rage can be a danger to everyone." I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. I have had chairs and tables thrown at me, I have had other children in the class harmed. After the aide is removed from the classroom, the child with a disability can become uncontrollable, calling out, interrupting, running from the room and hurting others. Not all behave like this, but a significant number do, and the cause is usually being in a classroom with many other children, too much noise and fluorescent lights and insufficient assistance.

These children know they are not doing the same work as the other kids. They know they are different. Children have always been cruel and they reject the child who is 'different'. Instead of having many true friends in a special school or class setting, the 'different' child has none. Even when the children can be persuaded to be kind, it is impossible for them to relate to a child who is so unlike themselves emotionally and intellectually. These kids will be shunned in the mainstream school.

Instead of feeling 'included', the child is well and truly excluded. Lonely, sad and with no self-esteem.

The teacher is the one in the worst position. What to do, with no aide to assist, if the child with a disability starts to call out, run away, throw things or harm others? With 24 other kids in the class, how is the teacher supposed to maintain a good learning environment?

Do the parents realize what is happening in the classroom? Do they even realize their child is not doing the same work as the other kids? Do they know the classroom teacher has no qualifications in special education and probably doesn't even know what to teach their child? Do they realize their child will never have true friends at the 'normal' school?

And what about the children who are being assaulted, interrupted constantly, prevented from hearing the teacher, unable to learn? 

Is this fair to anyone?

Integration could possibly work with proper thought. The teacher's aide must never be taken away from the child. They need to be with that child right to the end of high school - or the classroom teacher will be unable to cope. 

I am not surprised the principal of the school in Canberra was so desperate to keep this child under control, to protect the teacher and the other children - and this is the most likely scenario - that he felt he had to build a cage to contain the child's rage. 

Bring back special schools with specially trained teachers where children with intellectual disabilities can learn, make friends and be happy. At the very least, bring back special classes within mainstream schools with highly trained specialist teachers. 

Or alternatively, ensure that there is an aide for every disabled child who can quietly remove that child from the classroom when they become disruptive and bring them back when they are settled. 

I know the feeling of desperation. This situation can drive a teacher to a nervous breakdown. Shame on the A.C.T. education department for failing this child, this teacher and this principal. The shame is all theirs.