On 30 May children and families took to the streets in cities across England to fight for more funding for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Petitions were delivered to centres of decision-making. Twitter lit up with the hashtag #SENDNationalCrisis.
In a powerful piece in The Sun, Chair of the Select Committee on Education in the House of Commons Rob Halfon, MP wrote that: “No fewer than 78 per cent of permanent exclusions are issued to those with special educational needs, with 4,000 special needs students being excluded every week.” In another piece it was stated that “According to the NEU teaching union, special needs provision in England has lost out on £1.2 billion since 2015.” It’s a crisis all right.
The reality behind these figures was laid bare in a tweet by @Dyspraxialife: “It’s easy to show compassion for a child who is struggling. They have innocence, purity, vulnerability and the cute-factor. I wonder how many homeless people who get walked past every single day were once struggling children. Instead of love, they now get spat at and demonized.” This isn’t about ‘others’ – it’s about the health of our communities, the kind of society we hope to be, the smart use of limited resources. It’s about political will and choices.
So why do I feel like the air has been knocked out of me?
I see what is not seen, the “pink elephant” in the room as some advocates have started to call it: FASD. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
The best study to date in the UK says more than 6% may be affected by FASD, organic brain damage resulting from exposure to alcohol in the womb. FASD has been called a ‘hidden epidemic’. Statistically it affects more people than autism.
As I scroll through videos from the marches, I hear clusters of diagnoses and symptoms that match a pattern not uncommon among those with FASD: ADHD, ASD, OCD, hypermobility, dyspraxia, etc. I hear parents discussing exclusions from schools due to meltdowns that schools cannot handle.
I fear there are many missing the vital insight needed to put in place appropriate supports for their loved one, a diagnosis of FASD. FASD is a full body diagnosis, more than 400 conditions co-occur. Alternative strategies are needed at home and in school. Kids with FASD are often punished and excluded for behaviours that result from cognitive processing and sensory issues that contribute to a lack of impulse control, an inability to consistently remember what has previously been understood or to link cause and effect. Transitions are hard. The dysmaturity involved means everyone around the young person needs to adapt expectations and change the environment to give that person their best chance to succeed. Without lifelong support, the statistics for people with FASD are truly grim. Homelessness is just one of the possible outcomes.
There is great stigma at play here, fueled by a devastating lack of understanding. To even raise FASD in many parent-advocate or professional forums can bring a barrage of negatives based on the old-school shaming-blaming ethos. But we can frame the discussions differently. As outlined by the late Pip Williams, founder of the UK and EU Birth Mothers Network-FASD, the reasons why women drink in pregnancy are complex. Many pregnancies are unplanned. Most women don’t have the information about the risks of alcohol in pregnancy. Very often pregnant women are not drinking alone. For those who need help quitting, support services are severely lacking.
To help confront this stigma, my husband, son and I marched yesterday carrying huge brightly coloured signs made by the wonderful young people in the E. Herts and Area FASD Club that simply said “FASD” on them, wearing hats that said, “Ask me about FASD.”
One person who did ask was a recently retired Special Educational Needs Coordinator who had worked in two different schools. She didn’t know what FASD was. As she thought more about it, she said she had one child once who had Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (this refers to the 1/10 of those on the FASD spectrum who have certain facial features). A career SENCO would have had many, many students with FASD under her charge. Her question shows the vital importance of increased training on FASD at the frontline of SEND services. People don’t know what they don’t know.
We lasted at the march as long as we could. But there are no pictures of our signs out there in the news reports. To be fair, we left early. Our son with FASD was overwhelmed by the sensory input – the shouting, the whistles, the heat, the stop and go. Cognitively he was overwhelmed, unfamiliar with the march route, his anxieties soared. We didn’t even make it to the centre of the town, but we peeled off from the others, called it a success and came home. That’s the reality of life in our family. And the very many other families who were unable to be out there yesterday.
The tragedy of this absence from the debate is what has knocked the wind out of me. We know that early diagnosis and appropriate support create happier families and brighter futures for those with FASD.
And yet, even on a day when the streets are full of those with special educational needs and disabilities, our kids are still not part of the picture.
But I won’t stay down for long. I know change is coming. In England next year there will be a new NICE Quality Standard on FASD. Soon the health care system will be held accountable to improvements in services for those with FASD. The educational field too will have to wake up to FASD.
There will be no lasting solution to this SEND crisis unless and until FASD is a part of the picture.