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Learning after lockdown: The challenges of neurodiversity

Learning after lockdown: The challenges of neurodiversity

Lockdown home-learning is a fast-receding memory. The computer has been cleared off the kitchen table and schools are bustling with activity again. 

Some children have said good riddance to the pandemic and moved on, but for many with additional support needs (ASN), the effects are lingering. 

Some children are stuck waiting for a formal identification of dyslexia because of backlogs in assessments. Meanwhile the parents of some autistic children are still trying to find the right way forward for their children after a long and sometimes traumatic period of disruption.

All this is playing out against a backdrop of specialist teacher shortages and budgetary cuts.
Lockdown wasn’t all bad for children with ASN. Some look back almost wistfully at the freedom to learn in their own way, released from the strictures of school.

Fourteen-year-old Lucy Jack-Waugh from Dumfries, who is dyslexic, thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It was wonderful for Lucy, she loved it, absolutely loved it,” says her mother Anna. “She didn’t have to go to school, she didn’t have to learn alongside other people. There were other issues – she missed socialising – but she didn’t miss learning with other people.”

However, the loss of social contact and familiar routines during lockdown was distressing for some children – and the return to school afterwards was just as difficult.

Debbie (not her real name), from the south of Scotland, has a primary school-aged daughter who has autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

She says: “With autism, people see the social and communication difficulties, but that does not mean that autistic children don’t like being with other kids. My daughter is incredibly sociable. She absolutely needs other kids, so going into lockdown was hard, even though it removed some pressures from her.”

Like many children with autism, Debbie’s daughter couldn’t engage with online learning, which not only made it harder to follow schoolwork but meant she had no contact at all with children from her class at the local primary.

“We were getting into the situation where she was having daily or even hourly meltdowns,” says Debbie. “She would be angry and destroying things that were important to her, and then reproaching herself afterwards. 

“She was also hitting herself and though she was very young, you could see the beginnings of self-harm.

“I can’t say definitively that all this happened because of lockdown, as demands would have increased on her at school anyway as she got older. But I can say that it ramped up 100-fold with the onset of lockdown. We saw the extreme behaviour begin practically overnight.” 
Debbie’s daughter was “super-excited” about going back to school after lockdown but very quickly found school too challenging.

Debbie says: “Anxiety is common in children with autism and ADHD and it had got hold of her. She began to struggle and it took a lot to persuade her into school. She had a few days off now and then. Eventually, after one holiday, she wouldn’t go back. We moved to a part-time timetable, going in for less and less time, so she was eventually in for only 10 minutes a day. At that point I decided that a break was in her interests.”

She was off school for six months. That meant the family found themselves back in lockdown mode. With both parents working full-time hours from home and their daughter requiring to have someone with her at all times to help keep her on an even keel, the pressure on everyone was intense. 

There is simply not enough support for autistic young people in school

Debbie’s daughter has now been attending a new, more specialised school, outside of the state system, for several months. It has worked relatively well, though she still sometimes struggles to attend.

Every autistic child is different, with autistic traits and characteristics varying enormously from one child to another. Debbie feels that her daughter’s original school correctly followed the policy they had in relation to autistic children, but that the policy was generic rather than tailored.

She also observes that proactive communication from the school was limited and that much of what has been achieved for her child has been driven by her. 

All this is familiar to the National Autistic Society (NAS) Scotland. “We know that while some families coped well with the move to online learning, others really struggled without the routine and the structure of school, as well as a reduced support network,” says Rob Holland, the organisation’s director. 

“Change can be incredibly challenging for autistic people, which is why we called on schools to provide personalised transition plans for every autistic learner, with input from parents, to ensure they did not get left behind.”

Dorry McLaughlin of Scottish Autism agrees. He says: “A lot of the issues we are hearing about on our advice line – around school-related anxiety, school refusal, part-time timetabling, and children being sent home from school – are not new to us.

“We have heard about them for many years, and have raised concerns with decision-makers about the issues which are being faced by autistic pupils and their families across Scotland.” 
Scottish Autism’s own day and residential school in Alloa, New Struan School, has shown what can be done. Attendance returned immediately to pre-pandemic levels after lockdown ended. McLaughlin explains that senior managers at the school “ensured that relationships were maintained, and that we adopted an individualised approach to each child and family”.

Holland feels ministers need to do more: “There is simply not enough support for autistic young people in schools and we are urging the Scottish Government to focus on this issue, as well as to follow through on their commitment to establish a commissioner that can protect and promote the rights of autistic people.”

The Scottish Government, with cross-party support, is due to introduce a Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Bill by 2025 (neurodiversity describes the different ways the brain can function that are normal within the human population, and encompasses many differences including autism, dyslexia and ADHD). A consultation on the bill is expected to begin next year. 

A new commissioner to safeguard the rights of people with learning disabilities, autism and forms of neurodiversity is also to be created.

Everyone agrees neurodiverse children need more support, but there is a gap between aspiration and reality, and varying ways of approaching neurodiversity from council to council and even school to school. 

For children with dyslexia, lockdown gave some parents their upsetting insight into their children’s difficulties. Anna Jack-Waugh is chair of Dyslexia Scotland’s Dumfries & Galloway branch. She says a slew of parents came to the group new during the pandemic because, through home schooling, they were seeing for the first time how hard it was for their children to complete the assignments set for them.

“There was quite a lot of distress and shock, actually, in terms of parents becoming fully aware of how much their children were struggling.”

In some cases, a teacher suspected the child was dyslexic but hadn’t told the parents, or hadn’t mentioned the severity of it, while in other cases, the signs of dyslexia in a child hadn’t been spotted by the school at all. 

Not every teacher has the training to identify the signs, which is a long-standing problem that pre-dates the pandemic, as dyslexia is not a compulsory element of teacher training.

“Many newly qualified teachers will come with very, very little knowledge of dyslexia – that shocks many people,” says Cathy Magee, chief executive of Dyslexia Scotland.

One significant issue since school went back is that children have faced delays getting a formal assessment of dyslexia. Dyslexia Scotland has noticed a spike in calls to its helpline on the matter.

Assessments, usually led by specialist teachers, lead to children being identified officially as dyslexic. According to Dyslexia Scotland, the assessment process should generally take no more than two terms, but Holyrood has heard from some parents that it can take years. 

Magee says it’s no longer unusual for them to hear that parents have been told by teachers to consider a private assessment, to avoid a long wait to get an assessment done at school. 

“Our advice to parents is always to talk to the school first. No-one should be expected to pay for an independent assessment if they are at a state school,” she says. Private assessments can cost £600. Schools start giving children support for suspected dyslexia before an assessment has been completed, a policy that is widely supported. But Magee says “this should never be used as an excuse for delaying an assessment taking place”. 

Oliver Mundell, Conservative MSP for Dumfriesshire, is convener of the cross-party group on dyslexia at Holyrood and has been assessed as dyslexic and dyspraxic himself. 

He is concerned about the growing number of reports of teachers telling parents they should go for private assessments if they can afford it: “This advice comes from a good place,” he stresses, “because teachers are wanting to help, but it’s not in keeping with the principles of free access to resources and to universal education.”

He sees the length of time it is taking for children to get assessments as problematic. He says: “Some of the argument that the Scottish Government puts forward is that we have a needs-based system and children should be getting support whether or not they have a diagnosis, but stakeholders say that it’s much easier for people and schools to access support where a formal diagnosis is in place.”

Having a child definitively identified as dyslexic is important for a variety of reasons. Dyslexia has a broad range of impacts, not just on literacy, and varies in severity. An assessment helps identify a child’s particular strengths and challenges.

An official identification (many parents and teachers prefer this term as more positive than ‘diagnosis’) also means that lingering doubt about the child’s status is removed; parents and teachers then have a shared understanding about the child’s needs. Once dyslexia is identified, parents often tell their children they are dyslexic, knowing they will be backed up by the school, allowing them to highlight the advantages that often come with it, such as problem-solving skills and creativity. 

“The earlier a child is identified, the better, because it’s really about them learning to become independent in the classroom,” says Magee. “You do see the levels of confidence among those who are identified earlier, who can talk about it and feel proud of being dyslexic. So that identification is really important.”

There are very many knowledgable and dedicated teachers who work hard to give children with dyslexia the support they need, but concerns persist about budget cuts and varying policy from one area to another.

“There are schools that are doing excellent work and things really have moved forward for children with dyslexia,” says Mundell. “The awareness of dyslexia and the desire within the education system to support children is there, and offers a lot of hope. 

“But I don’t think we can shy away from the fact that a lot of kids are not getting the help they need.”

The fact some children found learning remotely during lockdown preferable to learning in school says “something worrying” about the stresses mainstream schooling places on these children, Mundell feels. 

He adds that a lot of the expectation for providing support for children with dyslexia is being put onto classroom teachers and pupil support assistants (classroom assistants). “They have a very important role and do have to teach to the needs of every individual, but there’s still a place for specialist support and we seem to be moving away from that in Scotland.”

Figures for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition in May illustrate the decline in the number of full-time equivalent support-for-learning teachers: numbers fell from 3,389 in 2012 to 2,860 in 2020, a cut of more than 15 per cent. 

The Coalition also found that between 2021/13 and 2020/21, spending per head on children with ASN had fallen from £4,276 to £3,402, a cut of more than 20 per cent. 

The Scottish Government counters that while specialist teacher numbers have fallen, supporting children with ASN is not just for support-for-learning teachers. They highlight the role classroom teachers play and that overall teacher numbers have increased. Extra funding allowed for 1,036 further pupil support assistants to be recruited in 2021.

All children have suffered as a result of the pandemic but the extra complications it created for those with additional support needs persist. With further education cuts coming, parents are left wondering what the future holds.  

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