If your only introduction was through television and movies, you could be forgiven for thinking autism presented in an obvious, predictable way. Not so, say Anna Scott and Allison Piper, AEU reps at the Northern School for Autism (NSA).
“You might expect autistic people to be non-verbal or flapping their hands, doing those sorts of stereotypical things,” says Anna Scott, who works at the Reservoir campus.
“Or the exact opposite,” adds Allison, who is based at the Lalor campus. “They might expect a savant. If you look at the ABC show Love on the Spectrum, they’re all verbal and quite independent.”
Anna stresses that “the spectrum is a spectrum”, with the NSA cohort including kids who need a little more support and non-verbal students with prominent behaviours – and every scenario in between. “I’ve taught hundreds of autistic kids over the past 12 years, and while there are similarities, you never see the same pattern forming in any child. So, every year, it’s like you work with families to almost decode their children and work out what’s going to really help them learn.”
“We are dedicated, experienced, evidence-based educators. We’re not babysitting.”
The lack of a one-size-fits-all approach meant both Anna and Allison felt frustrated by the blanket statements made about special schools in Victoria during the second lockdown. Allison was particularly discouraged to hear Premier Daniel Andrews frame the need for special school students to return to face-to-face classroom learning as “respite” for parents.
“We are dedicated, experienced, evidence-based educators. We’re not babysitting,” she says, stressing that respite workers play a different, equally important role for which they deserve respect.
Both teachers have been hugely impressed with how their colleagues adapted, from leadership down, including creating speech therapy and sensory learning packs to send home to equally responsive parents. “We run individualised programs for our kids, so one way that met the needs of one child in remote learning wasn’t working for another,” Anna says. “We just had to work together with parents to do our best. We’re built to be in that moment, not behind a screen, where it’s just so unusual for us.”
It all comes back to understanding the spectrum. Allison wonders if a bit more consultation with the special school sector over return dates, possibly on a case-by-case basis, might have helped. “I’m happy with us all going back at once, because there are definitely families at our school who have struggled during this time, but to put us all in the basket of ‘special schools needed to go back because remote learning wasn’t working for them’? That’s not true.”
“This is a difficult situation. If you can get your child to work, then that’s fantastic. But if you can’t, I didn’t want them to feel that I was pressuring them.”
Across the city, Callum Macleod, an AEU rep at Bentleigh East’s Southern Autistic School (SAS), is also proud of the way his school responded to the crisis. As a classroom teacher who works with eight primary-aged students, half of whom are non-verbal, he found the switch to learning from home was hard to navigate, as did some families and students. “We’re not a respite service, but at the same time, I did see some of our families doing it hard.”
Callum tried to emphasise mental welfare over academic achievement. “This is a difficult situation. If you can get your child to work, then that’s fantastic. But if you can’t, I didn’t want them to feel that I was pressuring them.”
While some students relished more time spent at home, for others the disruption to routine was exacerbated by the blurring of lines. “Suddenly their home, the place that they can relax, became their school. And that can be stressful.”
Callum encouraged different measures of success. “As the weather started getting better, I’d check in to see if parents had photos of their child playing in the garden.”
“I feel like there’s a lot more respect for teachers, and hopefully that translates to more people wanting to join the profession, especially in special ed, because it’s an important job.”
Remote learning app Seesaw was a useful way to set work and communicate with parents, so much so that it’s stuck.
Anna hopes some of the other changes will also stick. She believes being actively involved with the union is particularly important, as the special school sector tends to be overlooked in government’s broader decision-making, as borne out by communication breakdowns during COVID. She and Allison have a huge appreciation for how parents have rolled with the punches during these past few months. “They’ve done an amazing job.”
As have their colleagues. “We’re a resilient workforce,” Anna adds. “I feel like there’s a lot more respect for teachers, and hopefully that translates to more people wanting to join the profession, especially in special ed, because it’s an important job.”