THE Project’s Waleed Aly has spoken candidly about what it’s like raising a child with autism, one day after Pauline Hanson’s controversial suggestion that children with autism spectrum disorder be removed from mainstream classrooms.
The Gold Logie winner rarely talks about his private life with wife Dr Susan Carland or the 2011 diagnosis of his nine-year-old son Zayd, but has explained the misconceptions that senator Hanson and others have about autism during an interview on the Hit Network’s Carrie & Tommy radio show.
“For us it showed up in his unbelievable obsession with trains,” he told hosts Carrie Bickmore and Tommy Little. “It showed up in early years when we would tell him off and he would look at us blankly like, ‘Why are you making these noises?’ He wouldn’t pick up the social cues.”
Aly said his son was “high functioning”, which means the differences in his behaviour compared to another child of the same age are hard to spot. He said it was a “relief” to hear his son’s diagnosis and said “it’s easy to handle once you know what you’re dealing with”.
“I actually thought, ‘Oh great, the world makes sense now’. And now we know exactly what to do, we can handle this. And he’s thriving, he’s coping really well,” he said. “But I can imagine for other parents it wouldn’t be like that at all. Because when you have a diagnosis, what that triggers in a lot of people’s minds is this is lifelong and I suppose it kind of is.”
Aly said the major issue with Hanson’s suggestion this week is there are subtleties when it comes to where each child with autism falls on the spectrum.
“One of the problems with autism — and one of the problems with what Pauline Hanson said about it yesterday — it’s not that it’s never true that it can be really difficult for teachers. But it’s that the experience of autism is so diverse that you can’t possibly categorise it in this way,” he said.
The One Nation leader came under fire when she made the comments during debate on the federal government’s proposed schools overhaul in the Senate on Wednesday, insisting that parents and teachers had raised the matter with her.
Teachers were devoting much of their time to disabled children, to the detriment of other students in the classroom, she said.
Aly said “quick fixes” weren’t an appropriate solution.
“There’s an easy way around this. The underlying thing — and this goes for what Pauline Hanson’s talking about as well — there are very easy fixes for a lot of these sorts of things,” he said. “It’s when you lump everything together and try to turn everything into a problem that is to be solved somehow or quarantined from things that are not a problem, that’s when I think life starts to get difficult for people.”
Aly said the challenges of having a child with autism in a classroom can’t be generalised. He said each child diagnosed with the condition is affected in extremely differently ways.
“There’s this saying that goes around among people who either have children with autism or are experts in the area and they say: ‘If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism’. It’s incredibly diverse,” he said.
While some kids find it difficult to speak and others are distressed by noise, the father-of-two said his son wanted a lot of physical contact when he was younger.
“They want constant physical contact because it’s something about the wiring in their brain — that’s how they process the world. That’s how they understand where they exist in space is to constantly have things touching them,” he said.
“So he would jump off couches just so he could hit the floor really hard because he liked the sensation — landing on his feet, but he wanted that sensation. He used to ask us, can you cover me with pillows and just lie on me. He just loved that pressure.”
Aly said there are “a million different ways” for kids with autism to learn, which is why the call to have them all removed from classrooms doesn’t make sense.
“ … For some, it can be actually quite difficult then to be in a classroom environment. And they might need special schooling. But for others, if they’ve got an aid, or even if they’ve just got a teacher who’s just a bit switched on and attentive to it, they’re fine and they thrive. Because often — and this is the case with what used to be called Aspergers — they’re actually really, really good at school. In some cases they can learn in ways other kids simply can’t. So it’s a really diverse set of experiences.”