In the news recently has been a Sydney school whose response to parent concerns about the safety of children with Autism was to fence in a portion of the playground for these children. This took care of the safety issue.
However, it seems very little consideration was given to the social impact of this decision. Firstly, there are no toilets or drinking facilities available in the area. Secondly, the area is barren and grass-less. And there are indications that this segregation is having an impact on the children's friendships with their peers who are not in this playground.
As discussed in a previous post, the playground presents some unique difficulties for children with disabilities such as Autism. Learning to stay within a certain area where there are no physical boundaries can be very difficult. There may also be times when a child with Autism becomes so distressed by a change, noise or event on the playground that their primary need is to escape. Children in great distress can be at risk of hurting themselves or others as well.
For more information about Autism Spectrum Disorders, click here to visit the Autism Spectrum Australia website. You can also find a description of characteristics on the Autism Victoria website.
In Martin's article, Outrage over Seven Hills West Public School putting autistic children in cage, the Department of Education responded to public outrage by making the following claims:
- It was developed for safety reasons: "The school is located on a busy road. Without this area, the students may leave the school grounds and could potentially be injured."
- It was established as a transition tool: "Once the school is satisfied a student will listen to directions from staff members and is also aware of playground boundaries, the child can use the playground."
- It is a good solution: "Students are actively engaged in play and can leave the area to use other school facilities like the library."
Can we have both Safety and Socialisation?
Addressing risk and maintaining safety does not have to be at the expense of socialisation. The Disability Standards for Education 2005 clearly state that any adjustment must be designed in the context of an analysis of its costs and benefits. It states that adjustments are "reasonable" if made with reference to the views of family and the child. And it states that the education provider must:
"assess whether there is any other reasonable adjustment that would be less disruptive and intrusive and no less beneficial for the student." (p15)One parent shared with me on Facebook that her son was at a school who also had a fenced-off playground area. However, she described that area as having "a slide, a climbing frame, bikes, footballs, waterplay tables, access to drinking and toilet facilities and many staff supervising." The parent was also happy with these facilities.
In the playground under discussion it is evident that there are not fixed playground facilities. And the provision of "books and puzzles" somehow does not seem adequate. Especially since there is little in the way of colour or sensory stimulation in the environment.
The school's response to this was reported to be about their inability to afford anything different - to which parents pointed out the new building works at the school. While these two things come out of different budgets, it is evident from other schools' arrangements, that funding may be found, even if it is necessary to involve the local community in fundraising.
The parents were also not entirely satisfied with the playground arrangement. Nine News reported parents suggesting that it was "distressing" and "humiliating" for themselves and their children. As one parent stated, they would leave the school crying and think, "my son deserves better than that."
One parent also reported the social impact of this arrangement, indicating that friendships with peers without disabilities were "dropping off" simply because they were segregated.
Weighing the costs and benefits
So if, as required by the Disability Standards for Education, we analysed the costs vs the benefits we might come up with something that looks a little like this:
Reduction of friendships with peers
A change in social status and social belonging within the school environment
Lack of stimulation
Protection from road accidents
So is there a better way?
From the positive stories of other parents, it seems there must be. The point is that, in order to meet the standards set by the Commonwealth Anti-discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education 2005, we need to:
- provide protection
- listen to parents
- consider the social impact of what we are doing
- look at a range of options, and find the one where the benefits out-weigh the cost
In an ideal world ....
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders will need extra support to develop social skills, establish friendships and play with their peers. I was reading Yuill et al's (2007) article on designing a playground to promote social interaction for children with Autism. They found that the elements of a playground that promoted interaction and the development of friendships as including:
- Equipment suitable to children's physical skills to encourage object-related play rather than solitary play. That is, having slides, climbing frames and so on that must be shared with other children will help children develop physically as well as socially.
- Interest-related objects to promote imaginative play. Children with Autism often have very specific interests, such as trains. Providing a permanent set of object that can tap into a child with Autism's strengths (their specific interest and repetitive play) will lead to increased interaction and development of social skills through role play.
- Playground structure that promotes common patterns of movement. For example, a circular pathway or "obstacle course" can lead children to move and play with other children.
- A quiet space that children can retreat to, but still be able to observe and be part of what is going on. For example, a little tunnel in the playground obstacle course. Or a little picnic table and chairs close-by but set slightly apart from the hustle and bustle of the playground equipment.
- A smaller area that will promote interaction.
- A higher teacher to child ratio to help with prompting positive interaction.
- A playground surface that is safe, soft but does not present a trip hazard.
If we need to have a segregated playground, can we practice reverse integration to ensure children have ample opportunity to interact with their peers who don't have a disability?
What if we had fun equipment and organised games that were attractive to all children? Wouldn't all then children want to come and join in the "segregated" playground? Wouldn't it mean that the "special" playground would no longer be seen as being for children with special needs (that way changing the status of any child who plays there), but mean that it is seen as a "special" place to play? A place where it is a privilege to go?
Could we have a system where the children with Autism could invite their peers to come and play? Could all children be given an option of playing in that fenced-off area - with limitations on numbers, of course?
I wonder what difference this would make to the social impact a segregated playground has....
What do you think?
Yuill, N., Strieth, S., Roake, C., Aspden, R. and Todd, B. (2007). Brief Report: Designing a Playground for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders - Effects on Playful Peer Interactions. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 37, p1192-1196.
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Check out this great MSN Video: Sydney school defends segregation
Check out this great MSN Video: Primary school allegedly cages the disabled