Senator Pauline Hanson.
Senator Pauline Hanson. Patrick Woods

Mackay teacher slams One Nation's autism comments

PAULINE Hanson caused a stir this week when she said autistic children should be put in special, segregated classrooms.

On Wednesday, Senator Pauline Hanson was announcing her support for the Federal Government's $18.8-billion school funding package when she said that autistic children should be removed from mainstream classrooms for special attention.

The comment caused uproar from teachers and parents with autistic children.

The Daily Mercury reporter Jonathan Reichard put some questions to Mackay schoolteacher Michelle Wollaston and One Nation candidate for Whitsunday, Noel Skippen. Here are the questions and Ms Wollaston's answers. Mr Skippen did not respond.

What do you think about the recent comments from Pauline Hanson about autistic children in the classroom?

My main concern about Pauline Hanson's comments is that she doesn't understand either autism or the education system.

She is assuming that all children with autism have behaviour problems and are running amok in classrooms, and thus interfering with the education of other students.

Whereas, some students with autism are brilliant with very high IQs and the statement that they are holding other students back is ridiculous. I saw a comment supporting Hanson in a link that Noel Skippen had posted, which said that while other students are doing fractions, the autistic kids are colouring in. I pointed out that some of those students with autism had finished their fractions and were fixing their teacher's computer. The most disruptive students in our classrooms are not those with autism.

Other students with autism have difficulty communicating and so express frustration. This is also true of students for whom English is a second language, or who have learning difficulties.

Neither do autistic students take up most of our time; those with learning difficulties require more of our attention, so I'm assuming they are next on Hanson's hit list. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds can have trouble engaging with learning, too. And sometimes this is expressed with distracting behaviours. What does Hanson propose we do with those students?

The fact is that teachers differentiate the curriculum for all students, from the gifted and talented to those with special needs. The accusation that teachers are so focussed on the students with autism that we forget those who want to go ahead in 'leaps and bounds' is both ludicrous and offensive. The modern classroom is a dynamic place in which the teacher is focussed on meeting the needs of all students.

What do you think about One Nation candidate for Whitsunday Noel Skippen's defence of Ms Hanson and the education debate?

He suggested that I watch the entire speech, which I obviously had already done, as painful as it was. He stated that Hanson was responding to concerns raised by some parents who felt that the education of their children was being adversely affected by sharing the classroom with autistic children. (I question how many parents she has spoken to, whether they are in the private or public sector, and in what context these conversations occurred.)

However, Skippen then contradicted Hanson by stating 'there is no one size fits all answer' because Hanson DOES have a solution. She said: 'We need to get rid of those people'. She insists upon students with autism being placed in special schools or classrooms.

He argued that these students need special attention and should be given it. He depicted our classrooms as places where teachers are 'spread thin' and that we are not offering 'trained, attentive environments'. I think this is an unfair representation of both teachers and classrooms. Teachers are highly trained individuals with at least one four-year degree and often more; in fact there are more degrees in a school than there are in a circle.

If One Nation is so concerned about teachers being 'spread thin', I suggest they liaise with our representative bodies -the Education Unions - about what we really need to improve the education of our students. Needs-based funding which favours the public sector (where most of these students are enrolled) and heavily weights disabilities like autism and dyslexia (which is currently unfunded). Smaller class sizes, more teacher-aide hours, these are the real issues facing schools, not the fact that there are students with autism in our classrooms.

In her speech, Hanson claimed that students with autism are not provided with special schools or classrooms, but then added: 'And if they are, they're of a huge expense.' So, another contradiction. But the lack of logic is astounding as this is EXACTLY what she's proposing: the removal of students with autism into separate schools or classrooms. Does she realise the expense of doing this? How does she propose to fund them? Has she even thought this through before taking it to Parliament?

This is another example of Hanson scape-goating and her followers, like Skippen, just parroting the Party line, and defending the indefensible.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. How (if at all) does the severity of the individual child's condition relate to their suitability to be in mainstream classes?

Nobody knows the abilities of children with autism better than their parents, after all it was they who first noticed the signs of autism and had them diagnosed. When parents make the decisions about their child's education, they take into account how well they believe their child will cope in mainstream classes.

Some choose to send their children to schools like Mackay District Special School, others choose a school with a Special Education Unit to support their children in mainstream classes. These are mostly found in public schools but unfortunately some parents have bought into the myth that private schools are 'better' than state schools so insist that their students attend private schools. It is these children who struggle most in mainstream classes without the support of specialised staff in Special Education Units. Often, once parents realise that private schools don't cater for their children's needs, they later transition into the public education system.

Some students with high-functioning autism require very little support from their school's SEU, whereas other students will integrate into some classes with the assistance of specialised teachers or teacher aides.

All students with disabilities in state schools have dedicated case managers who liaise closely with the classroom teacher; it is hardly the chaotic environment described by Hanson and Skippen.

When I was at school in Mackay 30+ years ago, children who had what we now recognise as autism were sometimes segregated and sometimes left with the others, it was dealt with on a case-by-case basis. How does this compare to what is done today? Is it any different? Is what One Nation is calling for any different? Are they really saying segregate all autistic kids or are they just making blanket statements when those statements can't or don't apply to every situation?

As clumsy as Hanson sounds, her speeches are scripted. This is what she truly believes. She has previously targeted autism as being a consequence of vaccinations, an incredibly irresponsible position for a politician to hold.

But in yesterday's speech, she even managed to link autism with immigration, her long-held obsession. Her argument is that our students will fall behind because of the autistic children, and immigrants will take their jobs. If that was the case, no Australian students would be excelling, which is obviously not the case. But one thing those high-achieving students have in common is parents with high expectations who value education and support teachers.

The countries which are currently out-scoring us in standardised tests are those who are grateful for the opportunities afforded to them by education. Their parents demand that their children attend school - even when the show is on or it's the last day of school. They hold teachers in high-esteem and understand that we are acting in the best interests of their children. It has absolutely nothing to do with autistic children in classrooms.

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