Fitting in or standing out? SEN, education and inclusion.

I was diagnosed with dyspraxia when I was around eight years old, I had, in theory time to access the right support, time to understand how my brain works, and was lucky, so I’m told, to be diagnosed as a child. I didn’t have to navigate the minefield of adult diagnosis, as many of my friends have, and I knew I was dyspraxic before I went to university.

As a child I was on the SEN register and had a statement for Special Educational Needs, that at the time baffled me. I was deeply embarrassed by these facts and in denial that I even had dyspraxia at all. I didn’t understand why I was different and I found “fitting in” just as challenging as those without a diagnosis. I had a name describing why I was different but I refused to accept or acknowledge this.

I rarely talk about what being categorised as an “SEN” child felt like, partly because I try to block that part of my life out and sometimes I find it too hard to describe. I also realise it is something that should be talked about more, if we are to understand, we have to talk.

Recently I took part in some training at work about autism but it could also be applied to all of neurodiversity. This training focused on looking at “autistic behaviours” and teaching young people to fit in with “social norms.” Is this right? Should we expect people to conform because that’s what everyone else does? Would we expect someone in wheelchair to use the stairs because that’s the norm? We would not. And we shouldn’t think of dyspraxia, dyslexia, autism or any other hidden disability differently. It absolutely isn’t right to make people fit a mould. What does inclusion mean when leading organisations are making assumptions about neurodiversity? Is it really understood what it is like to grow up as an SEN child? So many questions and I don’t have all of the answers.

I remember, when I was about fourteen, being taken out of my favourite lesson of History, to go to the special educational needs coordinators classroom. They had apparently noticed that, at the time, I didn’t have as many friends as my peer group and that I was socially awkward & isolated. I was quiet, pretty withdrawn and trying to make sense of who I was, alongside being a teenager and trying to deal with undiagnosed anxiety. It’s no wonder I didn’t want to talk to people. It was decided, that I needed to develop my social skills, so without discussion with me or my parents, I was taken out of history to meet with another girl in my year, who was also SEN, to do puzzles. Puzzles that were well below my top set English ability. This girl was nice enough, but we didn’t have anything in common, other than both appearing different. We didn’t have the same interests, we weren’t in the same classes and I didn’t relate to her, who the puzzles seemed more geared to. We were both SEN but our needs were so different. A lot of the young people the learning support department worked with, struggled across the board academically, and rightly so needed adequate academic support. I, in comparison, was not an all rounder but I was also academic. I did well in humanities, English and essay based subjects, but struggled with maths, science and anything practical. I couldn’t remember formulas for algebraic equations but could recall German vocab perfectly. This is an experience that is shared by many people with dyspraxia, varying strengths and difficulties within education are common. The SEN department wasn’t used to people like me, despite dyspraxia affecting between 2% and 6% of the population, meaning that there will likely be at least one person with dyspraxia in every school class. In my big 1,500 strong secondary school there would have been hundreds of us. I remember visiting an old primary school teacher, post university, who described me as their “success story” because people like me, who grew up in the 90’s weren’t expected to go to university. This upsets me, although I recognise that university isn’t for everyone, being given the opportunity and expectations is obviously better than the alternative of being written off. It’s always better to have the option, even if, for whatever reason you decide it’s not for you. I was, in a sense written off but because my dyspraxia makes me driven, resilient and determined, I didn’t listen. I do wonder if I wasn’t diagnosed so young and had gone through school being judged on academic performance alone rather than a diagnosis, would the expectations of me have been different?

But I did have a diagnosis, and in the process of getting one saw more medical professionals by age ten than most adults do in their life time. I remember a series of hospital visits and constant testing, not all in relation to the difficulties my dyspraxia presented but also for my nystagmus and hearing loss too. In 1996, an educational psychologist discovered through a rigorous and exhausting testing process, that there were “large differences” between my verbal and performance IQ. Having such a difference in these IQ’s was, according to the educational psychologist, “out of the ordinary” and was estimated to only occur in two out of a thousand children. My verbal and writing skills were assessed to be above average and my perceptual organisation and processing speeds were assessed to be well below average for my age. It was concluded that my “good verbal ability should enable her to succeed in much of her work at school but her non verbal weaknesses will impact on her attainments.” He then goes on to say; “she is likely to need help to make the most of her verbal skills to overcome or bypass such difficulties as they emerge.”

A statement for special educational needs meant that I had access to help & support that the original report in 1996 suggested I may need, 25% extra time in exams and annual reviews. Extra time in exams, that carried through to university, ensured I had enough time to process the information and to write everything down. I never had any specific difficulties with handwriting but my writing speed was slower than average. To begin with, I did my exams in a separate room, but I hated this. It made me stand out, and I just wanted to be like everyone else. I eventually sat some exams in the main hall with the rest of my classes, but stayed on after everyone left to continue my exam into extra time. This was disruptive and still didn’t resolve the issue of standing out. My desire to “fit in” at the time, seemed to outweigh the necessity of any support that would help me. In early secondary school days, I was allocated a support assistant who sat next to me in science and geography lessons. A support assistant that I quickly made it clear I didn’t need. She used to interfere with setting up science experiments and would read over my shoulder, which I found off putting. My statement allocated a certain number of hours of support, and instead of exploring what might help me, I was given support I didn’t need or want. Extra tuition in maths from a younger age would have probably been more beneficial. I did eventually get a tutor at GCSE, helping me to literally scrape a C by one mark. My proudest exam grade ever!

Annual reviews took place termly, in primary school without me but in secondary school I was more part of the process. During a review meeting people who were involved in my education, sat around a table and discussed my progress and any support needs going forward, it was also a time when targets were agreed. My targets didn’t change for years, which says a lot about how effective the process was in the early 2000’s. Year after year my annual reviews set the targets, to develop an understanding of non-verbal social interaction, improve fine and gross motor skills including balance and spatial perception and to continue to develop numeracy skills. In my case my parents, educational psychologist, head teacher, head of house, form tutor and special educational needs coordinator were involved in my review meetings. I was then invited in towards the end to give my input and make comments about how I felt school was going for me. As a teenager, this was quite a daunting process, being presented with a table full of professionals, who appeared to be dissecting my abilities and making recommendations for the future. On one occasion when asked who I wanted as an advocate to “fight my corner” I responded with “I’m capable of speaking for myself thank you very much” – a response that was neither expected or understood. I was really saying that I wanted to be listened to, and by year 11, the SEN department appeared to listen to everyone but me, the very person who knows my needs better than anyone. I still giggle now at the assumption that I couldn’t speak for myself and my answer, clearly correcting this.

The juxtaposition of fitting in or standing out is a complicated one, and as my experiences show there isn’t an easy solution. Every teenager I come across, disability or not wants to fit in, and social media makes fitting in even more challenging than in my day when Instagram, snapchat and Facebook didn’t exist or was very primitive. I first started using Facebook and Myspace in 6th form, but it certainly wasn’t a huge part of my life then as it is for young people now. I would hope that schools today are more understanding of inclusion and the need to listen to young people, there is certainly more awareness around differences than when I was at school.

The level of awareness I have now, would have helped in those early days when I didn’t understand myself, but as with most things this is down to time, age and maturity. I’m always in awe when I see teenagers talk openly about their dyspraxia, as I know I wouldn’t have been able to do that at their age. This alone, demonstrates how far we have come. I mentioned earlier that we have to talk to understand, and back in the 90’s/2000’s, I didn’t hear anyone talking about disability or difficulties they had at school, it was very much the elephant in the room. As young people begin to talk more openly, we’ll hopefully develop a culture of young people writing agendas for their review meetings, outlining exactly what will help them, being involved in creating SEN spaces that don’t feel embarrassing for young people to go to and feeling they can fit in, in the same way that they sometimes stand out.

At almost 30, I fit in more now than ever before because I’ve met people who actually understand me. I hope todays young people find this belonging a long time before they reach 30 and that they are able to shape the future of SEN provision in our education system and beyond.

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