Hanson's autism comments miss the value of diversity



The mood was subdued at the gates of our small Catholic primary school at 3:30pm on Wednesday. Ten per cent of our school's students have an autism diagnosis, and for their parents who had read Pauline Hanson's comments to the Senate that afternoon, those familiar feelings — dismay at the ignorance and lack of empathy of some people, worry for the future, and defiant pride in their diverse children — had been activated yet again.

Pauline HansonThey have all heard similarly clueless opinions spouted before by blowhards in supermarket checkout queues and swimming pool changing rooms: autistic behaviours are just the result of poor parenting; parents seek out a diagnosis for their children because it's 'trendy', and irresponsible mothers induce their child's autism by eating, drinking, wearing, or sitting on the wrong thing while pregnant. And, of course, there is that longstanding fallacy that autism is caused by vaccinations (also briefly espoused by Hanson).

However, Hanson's statement, 'we need to get rid of' autistic children from mainstream classrooms, has a particularly insidious sting to it, given that it was made by a federal Senator in the context of the Gonski 2.0 school funding negotiations.

That teachers and parents of neurotypical kids have supposedly lobbied Hanson about the ill-effects of inclusive education reveals, at best, some resistance to the presence of differently-abled children in mainstream classrooms. At worst, it displays a yearning to return to the segregated systems of the past, whereby some children could be hidden, forgotten and granted a substandard education in contravention of their human rights.

It also limits and defines children to only one aspect of their identities. 'It makes me feel sad,' said Kelly*, the mother of one of my daughter's classmates, 'that people wouldn't see our kids are more than autistic. They are amazing people with so many gifts to share.'

Even if Hanson has not been approached by a single teacher or parent about this issue, at the expense of children with disabilities she has reprehensively sought (yet again) to have a divisive effect on the Australian community for her own political gain.

As the parent of a child with an intellectual disability wrote to Bill Shorten on Wednesday afternoon, such behaviour by an elected representative 'doesn't shock me — but it does break my heart all over again. It doesn't matter how many times it's happened before, I feel the knife twist again.'

The present system is imperfect, but Hanson's focus is woefully misdirected. If she wanted to have a positive impact on the education of 'our kids' (whoever they are) and children with additional needs, she would use her powerful position to push for increased funding to support teachers in the classroom.


"Hanson's focus on the supposed 'drain' children with additional needs have on their teachers and classmates wilfully ignores the very many positives they bring to a classroom, and the enrichment they bring to a school community."


The provision of more professional development and employment of classroom aides would be of far greater benefit (and more cost effective) than re-establishing a national two-tiered education system, which would only segregate the community and perpetuate the kind of ignorance Hanson revels in.

Her focus on the supposed 'drain' children with additional needs have on their teachers and classmates also wilfully ignores the very many positives they bring to a classroom, and the enrichment they bring to a school community. Penny*, a classroom aide, tells me that inclusive education 'encourages neurotypical children to socially engage and socially include children with autism, and hold a greater understanding of the disorder. This in turn creates socially inclusive and understanding adults.'

Fenella, a newly qualified primary school teacher, similarly refutes the notion that her students without disabilities are 'disadvantaged' in the classroom. She says, 'they are exposed to the idea of difference, and what is wrong with that?' She also observes that the modern classroom teacher works not only with children on the spectrum, but children with speech impediments and those who 'have never been exposed to a book before'. Where exactly would the line be drawn in Hanson's poorly envisioned education system? What level of 'ability' would a child require to ensure her welcome in a mainstream school?

As the school gradually emptied out for the day, and children scattered to their parents' waiting cars, or grabbed their scooters and bikes for the ride home, my friend Sammy's feelings about Hanson's statements gave me a heartening insight into what I believe so many parents of children in mainstream schools think. She said she is 'amazed and inspired' by the differences she sees in our school, particularly the ways in which some children have to rise above challenges and 'work that bit harder to find their way. There is so much to be gained from an inclusive world,' she said, 'and it all starts in their classrooms.'

I'm certain that in the coming days, Pauline Hanson will receive similar feedback from her constituents who embrace their children's experiences of humanity in all its diversity. Just as she was forced in March to backtrack on her statements about vaccines causing autism, perhaps she will be compelled to apologise for yesterday's assertions about the necessity of excluding children with additional needs from mainstream education.


Madeleine Hamilton headshotMadeleine Hamilton has a PhD in Australian history and is currently undertaking a Masters in social work.

*names changed to protect privacy

Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, Pauline Hanson, autism



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Existing comments

I reckon Hanson's got Attention Deficit Disorder and the rest of us, particularly the media, should develop it too whenever she opens her mouth.

john frawley | 22 June 2017  

Brilliantly said!

Kathy Lowe | 22 June 2017  

I remember thirty years ago debating similar issues. I was a teacher in a primary school classroom. No-one doubted the value of the 'differently abled children' but there was no doubt that doing justice to their needs in a class of thirty was difficult. There were only six and a half hours in the day, and the teacher's time could only be stretched so far. My point here is that Pauline Hanson seems to have taken up an issue which was addressed long ago and really doesn't need to be resurrected. There have been a lot of changes since then. And its strange that teachers and parents are complaining to Pauline when their voices are so silent elsewhere. This woman is just looking for an issue - she knows nothing about education or the education system. Hard to believe she's straight up...

Joan Seymour | 22 June 2017  

From my observation as the parent of average to very bright children, the "supposed 'drain' children with additional needs have on their teachers and classmates" is very real and shouldn't be denied just because there are benefits too. By glossing over the additional needs of "wide of average" children you weaken the argument for additional funding to make sure "all" the children in the classroom receive a proper education and teachers don't suffer from burnout. ... The example of "Fenella" above is of a new, idealistic teacher. I wonder how she'll be feeling a few years down the track after constantly coping with very wide divergences of abilities in her classrooms. Teachers "do" put a lot in to cater for everyone. But should we be relying on their goodwill until they burn out? We need to muster every argument possible for more funding so that "all" children and "all" teachers thrive in their wonderfully diverse classrooms.

MargaretC | 22 June 2017  

I don't agree with Hanson's statement, but neither do I agree with the hysteria being created in the media over her words. I wonder if many of the critics even bothered listening to her speech. She wasn't deliberately divisive as per her usual style when referring to race/immigration issues. And neither did she say we "need to get rid of autistic children" from mainstream classrooms. This is fake news. She was talking about getting rid of do-gooders who merely want to feel good about diversity, even when it's not in the bets interests of the child. And so obviously let's debate what's in the interests of the child - and consider that from SOME autistic children, where funding and help is not available, a special learning environment MIGHT assist them. And ironically with Gonski 2.0. there will be LESS funding for support for autistic students in mainstream schools.

AURELIUS | 22 June 2017  

This seems like a storm in a teacup to me. She was trying to be supportive by saying they need extra help but in her inarticulate way she left herself vulnerable to being taken out of context. She wasn't saying segregate them and leave them to their own devices. Seems to have triggered a lot of sanctimony (not talking about your fine article).

Georgie | 23 June 2017  

It's easy for reasonably minded people to automatically disagree with everything Pauline Hanson says, but the real issue is ensuring students with autism and other disabilities to be educated in the most suitable setting with appropriate curriculum access. Sometimes that is a mainstream classroom and sometimes it isn't. Here is the position of Catholic Education in NSW. http://www.cecnsw.catholic.edu.au/images/MR%20170622%20Autism(2).pdf?cn=cmV0d2VldA%3D%3D

Jim | 23 June 2017  

I'm cancelling my subscription after this article's desire to steal funding for autistic and other special needs children. Hanson is correct and most teachers I know have been calling for exactly this for years.

Peter Maver | 23 June 2017  

Maybe a greater number of Australians have a bit more of an inkling as to how Aborigines, Asians and Muslims have felt after other sprays from these Senatorial lips.

Susan Connelly | 23 June 2017  

Agree whole heartedly, Madeleine, but amused by the irony of 'Pauline Hanson' and 'the value of diversity' in the same sentence! Isn't destroying diversity One Nation's only policy?

Catherine Petersen | 23 June 2017  

I guess the first line says it all - 10% of students in one school with an autism diagnosis... Autism is the equivalent of hyperactivity in the 1970s/ADHD for the 1980s and 1990s,.. waaaayyyy overdiagnosed. As a teacher, I can say 100% thankyou to Pauline for broaching this issue. Interesting the reaction from media/interest groups so that this debate can't take place. Emotive reactions from parents are irrelevant in debates like this. For some autistic students, integration is not the answer and, yes, the rest of the mainstream class do suffer, an issue you have failed to address here. Sure, be a good parental advocate for your children, but at what stage do your child's rights have to be set aside for the rights of other people's children to actually get a decent education?

Paul | 23 June 2017  

Arguing against diversity, in favour of the perceived interests of the very narrowest of "mainstreams", no matter the reality or consequences, is really what One Nation has been about. Nothing if not consistent.

Roland | 23 June 2017  

Whilst Pauline Hanson's comments are just so "wrong" for want of a better word (let's keep it simple), as a teacher I really worry that the general population have no idea of the absolute hell that many children endure in our schools. Anyone that is even slightly different cop it day in day out. I really am worried that the demise of the "safe schools" program is due to the total lack of understanding of many Christian people just not realising how toxic, even the very best schools are, when it comes to the bullying of kids. Young people that are red heads, gay, transgender, not classically beautiful, a different weight to the norm, a minority cultural group, etc. are daily targets of others. Their lives are miserable. Unfortunately the effects of living like this for extended periods of time have life long disastrous consequences. This scurge of anxiety and depression AND SUICIDE in our society is REAL! What Hanson has raised, is just the tip of a very ugly iceberg, that we as a society find ok to tolerate a significant number of children living a hellish existence. Well get ready for the meltdown folks!

Val | 23 June 2017  

Years ago, near the end of his schooling, our older son was finally formally ‘diagnosed’ with “Asperger’s” (as this was some time back). Through family history my wife and I recognised the “Autism Spectrum” issues before he started kindergarten, but no-one listened and we never managed to get him any real support or recognition in our local small rural government and Catholic schools, where he was relentlessly bullied. He completed Years 11 and 12 away from mainstream schools though Distance Education (who were wonderful) for his own sake, no-one else’s. I stayed home with him for three years all up while he worked out his path. He is not “disabled” in any way, and is now completing his PhD in robotics and technology interface, something our society currently values highly. Looking back now, I feel that he survived his education much better than his “neurotypical” younger brother, who is “artistic” so much less valued by society nowadays. I think there may be a case for some students to be educated outside mainstream schools to achieve what is best for them. Mostly I wonder why we have a education system that is so destructive for so many children.

Russell Jones | 23 June 2017  

She is also intensely divisive, without unduly judging her motives, which appear to seek a political advantage. That alone should disqualify her as a politician of any substance.

Michael Furtado | 23 June 2017  

What level of English language skills does one need to understand what Senator Hanson means when she is making a speech? Well higher than that proposed by the government's Citizenship test. You see Senator Hanson can always claim she was taken out of context. So when she says disruptive students should be taken out the mainstream and put in a separate classroom she is really appealing for more resources (more classrooms, more specialist teachers, more conditioning of the mainstream to learn to respect the needs of their disabled peers). Gonski is meant to be a students-needs-based distribution of money but it has a fatal flaw. The distribution is calculated on the socio-economic status of where the school is rather than the socio-economic situation of the individual students. The next morning Senator Hanson told a press conference she had been taken out of context. She was right in that regard but her inability to express her ideas clearly & succinctly (even when they are insightful) makes them easily taken out of context.

Uncle Pat | 23 June 2017  

For me the standout line in this article was about creating "socially inclusive and understanding adults". Now who can we think of who really doesn't fit that bill at all?

PaulM | 24 June 2017  

Madeleine a fantastic article. So very true on many levels. My wife taught children on the spectrum and she totall agrees with you comments. Well done keep up the great writing.

John Davis | 24 June 2017  

Ms. Hanson has made it clear she will never apologize for the harm her inarticulate and inflammatory selective argument for segregation in mainstream schools has caused, both in her impromptu press conference outside parliament yesterday, and in the long winded back tracking interview with Bolt. She deserves to be denounced and better informed, but like all far right 'shock jocks', she just blocks everyone that doesn't echo her propaganda and singular agenda. Hence it's futile reacting to her stupidity. It's not appropriate to single out children on the autism spectrums as any more different in need requiring creative new thinking in education than socially traumatized children, children impacted by generational poverty, neglect or homes of drug and alcohol dependence, or children born with alcohol fetal syndrome and children displaced from war zones or their biological family. If there's a need for more resources and flexible educational opportunities for any groups of vulnerable children, surely it would be more appropriate to lobby passionately through school Councils, eminent educators and wise well informed Ministers than a public debate around any nonsense Hanson uses to demonize minorities to perpetuate social division. All methods of education have shortfalls and warrant continuing debate of wild ideas for a changing future , and any discussion with children shows they're way ahead of us and the true hope in the future !

Marianne Hamilton | 24 June 2017  


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