Waleed Aly has shared his experience raising a son with autism and explained why keeping children like him out of mainstream classrooms would be a mistake.
Aly, whose nine-year-old son Zayd was diagnosed with autism in 2011, said Pauline Hanson’s calls to separate kids with autism to keep them from holding back their classmates echoed a major misconception: that all kids with autism are the same.
“One of the problems with autism … 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.
“There’s this saying that goes around among people who either have children with autism or are experts in the area: ‘If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism’. It’s incredibly diverse.”
The TV presenter made the comments on his Project co-host Carrie Bickmore’s radio show with Tommy Little on Hit FM on Thursday afternoon.
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He told the hosts Zayd was “high-functioning” – so much so it was only subtle differences, like an obsession with trains, that alerted he and wife Dr Susan Carland to their son’s condition.
“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. It was just little things like that,” Aly explained.
Since Zayd’s diagnosis, Aly and Carland had relied on specialists’ advice on how he would learn best, changing their play-style to match his way of processing things.
He argued it was a mistake to keep all autistic kids out of a mainstream classroom based purely on their diagnosis, adding that his son is “thriving”.
“For some, it can be actually quite difficult then to be in a classroom environment. And they might need special schooling,” Aly said.
“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 Asperger’s — 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.”
Aly said Zayd’s differences in processing and learning included talking to him about things literally instead of imaginatively and allowing his touch-based learning.
“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 while his son’s diagnosis came as a “relief”, he understood why it might not be the case for other parents because they fear their child might be labelled a “problem” that needs to be “quarantined” from other kids.