Even across the immeasurable gulf of cyberspace, I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath as readers ask themselves what sort of offensive claptrap I am going to come out with on this topic. After all, am I not renowned across the country, and for all I know the world, for my crass insensitivity about home educated children with special educational needs?
Something which one of the regulars here said yesterday has put me in mind of autism. She mentioned that some years ago people were offering 'cures' for autism, based upon a variety of crank systems. I had quite a few dealings with such things at one time and I was wondering how this might tie in with the home education of children on the autistic spectrum. According to the Ofsted report on home education published this year, over a quarter of the parents to whom they spoke had a child with either a statement or who were at the 'School Action Plus' stage. In addition to this, there were other parents who said that their children were on the autistic spectrum. The overall impression is that quite a number of home educated children have or are supposed by their parents to have, autistic features. This tends to agree with what one sees on the Internet lists and elsewhere; that a sizable proportion of home educated children have special educational needs and of these, quite a few are autistic in varying degrees of severity.
Now it is an interesting fact that the parents of children with autism are more likely to fall prey to conmen and purveyors of fake remedies and snake oil than are the parents of children with some other special needs. Why should this be so? The problem lies in the possibility or claimed possibility of a 'cure'. If your child has Down's Syndrome, then you know where you are. Extra chromosomes, an epicanthic eye fold; the child has Down's and that is that. The same applies to neural tube defects like Spina Bifida or blindness. It has after all been almost two thousand years since anybody was able to make the blind see. You know where you are with these conditions. The case is slightly different for the parent of a child with autism. After all, he looks like every other kid. Maybe there is something that can be done? Perhaps this is like fixing a broken leg, rather than coming to terms with a life long disability? At one time, autism was thought to be caused by purely psychological factors; the so-called 'refrigerator mother', for instance. If it had been caused by a failure to bond, then surely there might be a way to rectify this deficit in later life? Others suggested that the problem lay in the circulation of the Cerebrospinal fluid and various other outlandish explanations, all of which were accessible to treatment.
I have written before of my experience with 'facilitated communication' and autism, but I also witnessed some pretty awful scenes with other treatments for this disorder. I wonder if anybody remembers holding therapy? The idea was that if you could hold an autistic child very tight, squeezing him to you and forcing him to stare you in the eye, then the bonding between mother and child could be repaired. If he refused to look you in the eye then you had to use 'tactile stimulation' to make him. This meant poking and prodding. I was around when Esther Ransome's husband Desmond Wilcox made a documentary about this and for a while it was very popular. Another idea was craniosacral massage. This entailed rubbing the child's head in order to reduce blockages in the circulation of the fluid there. It was also a complete fraud. Then there was the light therapy, the Higashi Method and any number of other 'cures'.
How does this tie in with home education? One of the things that one notices about most of the home educated children with special educational needs whom one hears of or encounters is that they tend to have Specific Learning Difficulties or SLD. This means that their difficulties lie in one or two specific areas, rather than being global. Often, as in the Ofsted report, autism is sufficiently prevalent to be mentioned. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that children can be pretty dreadful to each other generally and they are especially dreadful to anybody who is a bit strange or out of the ordinary. Under these circumstances, withdrawing a child from school is simply a protective measure to protect her from further distress . There is a second possibility though, which may well be combined with this desire to rescue a child from an unpleasant situation. It is this.
As I said above, while one hears a good deal from home educating parents whose children are on the autistic spectrum, one seldom hears from those whose children are blind or confined to a wheelchair. I have puzzled over this a good deal. I am wondering whether it might be the case that those whose children have a definite, obvious and lifelong handicap come to accept this more readily than those whose children have autism. It occurs to me that parents who decide to educate their AS children at home might subconsciously be seeking some sort of 'cure', or at the very least be hoping at the back of their minds that undertaking this unusual form of education might effect a great change in their child's condition. This could go some way to explaining why so many home educated children with special needs are on the autistic spectrum and so few are physically disabled or suffering from severe learning difficulties. In the latter case, their parents know that little improvement is likely in their child's condition, but the parent of an AS child might be hoping desperately that if they work hard enough with their child, some day something might 'click' and they will see a dramatic improvement in the condition.
I have no idea whether this hypothesis has any merit, but if it has none, then there must be another reason for the number of autistic children one hears of being educated at home. There must also be another reason why so few children with severe learning difficulties seem to be de-registered from school and home educated. I would be interested to hear of anybody's theories on this.