A Bendigo teenager living with Asperger’s syndrome has hit back at senator Pauline Hanson’s suggestion autistic students be educated separately from their peers, describing the crucial role mainstream schooling has played in her development.
Bendigo Senior Secondary College student Sophia McGranaghan, 15, said she was “sickened” by the One Nation leader’s contention that teachers be allowed to focus on other children “straining at the bit and [who want] to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education”.
Sophia said attending classes alongside neurotypical students allowed her to develop skills for life outside of school.
The year 11 student with a talent for music performance and composition believed she would survive, but not thrive, in a specialised classroom like the one put forward by Ms Hanson.
“The reason I came here was to have at least one small gap or chance to have a social life and be able to function socially with other people,” she said.
Asked how she coped in a classroom with 20 or more other students, Sophia admitted the experience was sometimes overwhelming.
“But as I go into classrooms more and more, it becomes less and less overwhelming,” she continued.
The 15-year-old also described how it felt when she was excluded because of her Asperger’s diagnosis.
“It's almost heartbreaking, devastating to me,” she said.
“It's almost like I've been given a criminal record when I haven't done anything wrong.”
BSSC music co-ordinator Matt Pankhurst was also disappointed by Ms Hanson’s comments.
Posting to social media a video of Sophia playing the saxophone, Mr Pankhurst explained the young woman was not the only person to benefit from her presence in the classroom.
“When she answers questions in class, plays and composes, often she shows genius and others learn and gain skills from her,” he wrote.
The video was watched 1500 times since Saturday morning.
He also said when Sophia became upset in class, it was an opportunity for other students to practice compassion and empathy.
Mr Pankhurst credited Sophia’s Asperger’s with her “unified passion” for music, creativity and meticulous attention for detail.
BSSC principal Linda Lyons said her school catered to students of all abilities, explaining every young person had their own challenges with which teachers needed to contend.
More resources for high needs students would be welcomed, Ms Lyons said, with government schools currently having to “be creative” to share their support staff across the timetable.
That was also the view of Bendigo Autism Advocacy and Support Service co-convenor Beck Kelly, who said better tertiary education of teachers would improve the school experience of autistic children.
Ms Kelly said Australia was obligated under its own law, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, to offer an inclusive all people an inclusive education.
She said Ms Hanson’s comments were not so much bigoted as they were misinformed.
“If there was more money and more support in the classroom, we’d see a different mainstream school setting,” Ms Kelly said.
Sophia called on politicians to show the autistic community more compassion, and asked the education system be made more flexible so students who excelled in particular subject matters could reach their potential.
“Autism isn’t an issue, it’s neurodiversity,” she said.
“It’s a label that no one should have to be ashamed of.”