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Inverness mums take their children out of mainstream school due to lack of autistic support

By Annabelle Gauntlett

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Carrie and Hannah.
Carrie and Hannah.

Two Inverness mums have expressed their concern for autistic children in the mainstream education system after their kids endured a ‘traumatic’ experience.

Chairwoman of the National Autistic Society (NAS) for the Highland branch, Carrie Watts (47), and outreach coordinator for the Highland branch, Hannah Fraser (31), both took their children out of mainstream school education after seeing the lack of support available for autistic children.

Carrie’s oldest son was diagnosed as autistic when he was just three-years-old as he was hyperverbal and hyperlexic as a toddler.

Carrie was told by the school that her son was ‘overly defiant’, to which Carrie said: “He was not defiant, he was honest and direct. He expected them to treat him with the respect that he was treating them with.”

However, her younger son experienced the opposite, as he was diagnosed as autistic at the age of five after he experienced difficulty sleeping and didn’t speak until he was four years old.

After Carrie’s children were diagnosed as autistic so young, she began to learn all she could about what that meant for her boys and their future, particularly in school.

She said: “Even from as early on as in nursery school, it was very easy to see where standardised practice in an educational setting was not the right support for him.

“After learning that, I got onto a course that is run by the National Autistic Society called the early bird parenting course. There, I was able to learn and understand what autism was, and also learnt that I was autistic.”

Hannah Fraser (31) from Inverness.
Hannah Fraser (31) from Inverness.

To ensure her children didn’t endure the same forced experience at school as she did, Carrie made it her mission to make her children’s lives as accessible as possible. She realised early on that mainstream schooling was ‘never going to work for them’.

For instance, her son struggled with going into the toilets at school due to the existence of the hand dryer maybe going off, and the loss of control was overwhelming for him.

If he reached a meltdown state he would start banging his head against the wall.

She said: “He was already just coping going into school, so if anything happened there it would be that more dramatic.”

When talking about the educational aspect in mainstream schools, she said: “My children’s learning styles are completely alternate and there is a sense of a hierarchy of command structure that exists in mainstream schools is outdated and harmful.

“It is a military hierarchy system and our children are not soldiers.

“So, when we expect them to take orders and not question orders, we are not doing them any service.

“And I knew, certainly for my older child, that his very valid, logical and human rights oriented belief on things was not going to gel with people who thought that you just do what the teacher tells you to do.”

Carrie’s oldest son has always been described as ‘exceptionally academically capable’, however he was not as adept to the social aspect of being in a shared learning space with other people.

Therefore, he has been home-schooled, but is keen to try out a few classes a week in the next school year, and her youngest son is doing flexi-schooling which consists of going to school four days a week due to the social pressures.

She said: “The school staff I work with are excellent, the biggest challenge has been the resources available to the school to do what they want to do to help my children.

“So if they don’t have the staff then the social group can’t run, and it didn’t run for a year, even though it was identified in the action plan as something my child needed.”

Similarly, Hannah was also diagnosed as autistic after her daughter was six-years-old.

Her daughter started off in a ‘nurturing’ primary school with a small class and a ‘lovely teacher’ who supported her needs.

However, her daughter was distressed with the upcoming changes that were going to happen when entering P2, and subsequently struggled to sleep.

Carrie Watts (47) from Inverness.
Carrie Watts (47) from Inverness.

It was at that point Hannah transferred her daughter into a smaller school that ticked all the boxes in terms of her autistic needs, such as one-to-one time, eating away from the canteen and watching something while eating as it became a ‘big demand’.

Hannah then learnt that her daughter had a PDA profile of autism, which is a persistent drive for autonomy. This meant that her daughter has an extremely sensitive neuroception, so is constantly living in a flight or fight response.

This meant that the consistent need of demands in a school environment put her daughter in a state of ‘complete panic at all times’.

After trying out another school, Hannah deregistered her daughter from mainstream schooling and she has been home-educated ever since.

When talking about what she thinks needs to change in the mainstream school system, Hannah said: “Truly, everything needs to change from top to bottom. To drive that change we need people to understand the depth and complexity of the challenges autistic children and young people experience in a mainstream setting.

“The current system is inherently ableist. Autistic pupils both identified, and unidentified are stigmatised and marginalised by staff and peers. From my own experience and the accounts from families that seek our support, the basic human rights of autistic children are consistently not being met.

“I believe that professionals within education need to improve their knowledge of what is lawful and unlawful in their interactions with all neurodivergent pupils.”

To help enforce change to the ‘pathologising and dehumanising narrative that dominates the public opinion of autistic people’, Hannah and Carrie organised a conference under NAS.

Carrie said: “This conference is aimed at addressing issues of foundational importance to understanding and supporting the autistic community in autistic-affirming language and practice.

“We want to move society forward to a place that celebrates the autistic experience instead of pathologising it. Creating that change requires a multi-faceted and patient approach - and it all starts with the kinds of discussions that we will have at this event.

“We can’t even express how fortunate we feel to be able to facilitate that discussion.”

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