When I was in middle school, disruptive kids were put into “time out,” and they had to stand in the front or outside of the classroom door. Each of them had to speak to the teacher after class, and if the child had special educational needs, he or she was provided with a few fixes that catered his or her specific needs. On March 10, however, an Australian Capital Territory public school in Canberra, Australia decided to cater an autistic child by building a cage-like structure for him inside a classroom. Essentially, this school decided that the best way to teach a special educational needs child was to enclose him, trap him and call him out on his disability. Is that not prime education?
I think it is fantastic that adults who specialize in education thought that calling this child out was the best way to deal with his differences from the other children. This child is not only trapped in his head because he does not fit the socially acceptable definition of “normal,” but now he is physically trapped in class, too. It’s not a metaphor. It is a literal calling out on what makes him different and special, and cornering him for it. The school claims the structure was created to provide the child with the alone time he needs, and what better way to spend alone time than behind specially made bars?
Of course, there are several much better ways.
There can be no purely good intention behind creating a structure that resembles a cage for any child. This is especially true for an autistic child who is already challenged by the mental health stigma in the world today. Creating this cage and placing him in it subconsciously symbolizes a punishment for his disability, something he cannot control. Adults in Australia have seen the harm in this, and an investigation has begun against this school. However, what about the children in that classroom who witnessed the action? They could have been molded into the belief that an autistic child, or rather any special needs child, should be called out and punished for being different.
I am glad that the school was immediately put under investigation. The principal was suspended, and the cage-like structure was dismantled. Yet, the gladness does not eliminate the worry I feel. Why did this school decide to permit the structure in the first place? How did nobody in that school question that structure? If this is the way educators think, how will the mental health stigma be erased in future generations? I worry about how much more awareness is needed in regard to special needs children.
If these children are in the same school as children who do not have special needs, it is because they are capable of being there. If they are capable of being in that school, they deserve the same respect and tolerance as the other children. I am certain that no other child would have ever been put in that cage for disruptiveness or for “alone time.” In a world where we are constantly advocating equality of every kind and desperately trying to erase prejudice against people who are considered different, this cage brought attention to the autistic child in a negative light that should not be a part of our day and age. The cage was removed from the classroom on March 27, 17 days after it had been placed there.
We have built a definition for everyone and everything today. Generations after us can either grow up keeping these definitions in mind, or they can grow up dismantling these definitions and the biases they bring with them. They can grow up with the cage or without the cage. I hope that the heinous act by this school in Canberra raises awareness regarding how many more steps need to be taken to erase socially misconstrued ideas of what is normal and acceptable.