Thursday, 16 August 2018

"aggressive behaviour is not a choice for children with autism": a legal decision with implications...

The quote heading this post - "aggressive behaviour is not a choice for children with autism" - reflects a legal ruling rather than a piece of peer-reviewed research that more typically appears on this blog. The ruling, which was reported in several media outlets (see here and see here), concerns an appeal over "a 13-year-old boy with special educational needs who had been excluded from school because of aggressive behaviour that was linked to his autism."

The details of the case concern various incidents where the boy - referred to as 'L' - struck a teaching assistant with a ruler as well as pulling her hair and punching her. As a result, the school gave L a one-and-a-half day exclusion. The exclusion was challenged on the basis that L was being denied an education as a result, in contravention of his human rights. The judge agreed and deemed the exclusion discriminatory on the basis that the presentation of such aggression was 'not a choice' but instead his "behaviour in school is a manifestation of the very condition which calls for special educational provision to be made." The National Autistic Society (NAS) here in Blighty was involved in bringing this appeal and have highlighted what it means: "all schools must make sure they have made appropriate adjustments for autistic children, or those with other disabilities, before they can resort to exclusion."

Of course this is all good news for children on the autism spectrum and their parents. It stresses that school exclusion should always be a tool of last resort as enshrined in law. It means that such 'challenging behaviours' should always be investigated as a 'sign of unmet need' and appropriate provision put in place to 'work through and manage' rather than exclude as a first reaction. This is really important and will influence many, many futures; hopefully also reversing a worrying trend (see here). It also means that schools excluding pupils or trying to exclude pupils perhaps on the basis of "their results not counting against the school" or similar sentiments, have been given notice...

But there is another side to this coin, and one that may also have equally important long-term repercussions for autism and the autism spectrum: aggression or aggressive behaviour is now inextricably *linked* to autism. And the removal of the word 'choice' from such 'tendency to physical abuse' behaviour - "through no fault of their own... akin to a spasmodic reflex" - starts to place such actions and behaviours in law in a similar position to that of various other developmental and psychiatric labels. 'Vulnerability' it seems, continues to retain it's relevance to autism (see here).

Not to carry on with casting a dark cloud over such a ruling, there is another group of people often forgotten in such cases for whom such a judgement will also likely have an important effect: teachers and teaching assistants who are often working at the 'sharp end'. Indeed, in one of the news reports on this case, there are some important points made by a union representative: "school staff members are attacked at work on a daily basis - from verbal abuse, to being spat at, kicked and punched. But they love their jobs, love the kids and want to carry on doing their best for the children. They understand these pupils can lash out and violent incidents can occur. All they ask is their school backs them up when it does happen - and takes the common sense steps needed to protect them." Such a ruling is unlikely to aid in the recruitment and retention of teaching and support staff who, just as anyone else in any other profession, also have enshrined rights at work when it comes to their health, safety and wellbeing. And without an appropriate intake of such often under-paid, under-appreciated staff, the education system, including that relevant to special educational needs, can only be put under even more stress and strain coupled to the current funding issues. A vicious cycle continues and is only likely to accelerate (see here).

Further research aplenty [1] is required on this important topic. Research on how to make school a more welcoming place for all is the primary objective and already implied. Every child deserves a decent education, and school should also be a place where happy memories are made and remembered for a lifetime. It's not an impossible task by any means; there are schools out there catering for various different needs and doing it well, if not in an 'outstanding' capacity. Good practice needs to be shared and shared widely. Minus any 'blame game' indications, such a ruling also means that some further calm and objective discussions and investigations about ways to reduce and minimise acts of physical aggression should at the same time, also be prioritised (see here and see here and see here for some possible research directions). Minus that is any psychobabble explanations, sweeping generalisations or 'one-size-fits-all' sentiments being expressed...

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[1] Brede J. et al. Excluded from school: Autistic students’ experiences of school exclusion and subsequent re-integration into school. Autism. 2017. Nov 9.

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