Isaiah 58:6 (NIV)
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”
In 2006 I started teaching my first class in a school for children with severe autism and learning difficulties. A class of six teenage boys, with six teaching assistants, one for each. One boy, let’s call him Gordon, often needed two TAs with him. He would hit his own forehead with both fists unless the TAs sat hold his arms gently giving him reassurance that they were there. At first, most days he would have what is called a ‘meltdown’ where he would become very distressed, arch his back, hit himself and be in danger of getting hurt by the furniture that he would fall against. As a team we were well trained in safe holding techniques and were given extra support and training to keep him safe, reassure him and help him recover. Neither the headteacher or us as a staff were happy that we had to do this but our prime concern was the safety of Gordon. It was really horrible to see him become so distressed and not be able to tell us why.
Around then we had training about sensory integration therapy and the school employed a sensory therapist to assess the sensory needs of all the children in the school. Understanding the sensory needs of children with autism was only just coming into our education system at that time. As we put the therapy in place and I as teacher began to bring sensory work into all my lessons, we soon noticed that Gordon was calmer, more engaged with the lessons and his sense of humour began to emerge. We also worked on understanding his communication and realised that he could take up to 5 minutes to process a visual piece of information, and if we left a symbol with him he would look at it intently until he’d processed it. Then instead of needed adults to escort him everywhere, he would get up and take himself to the playground or wherever we were going. By the end of that school year, Gordon was sitting at the group table, engaged in lessons, following the routines and loved our trips out in the minibus. The meltdowns had decreased to almost nothing and he made us laugh with his humour and cheekiness when he did things and watched us to see if we would laugh.
But Gordon left the school the year after. He was sent to a medical assessment facility for people with autism at the other side of the country. I never saw him again. He’ll be a man now. I still pray for him because I could never forget him and was worried that other people wouldn’t take the time and effort to get to know him like we did. I wanted to let them know what sensory activities he loved and what helped him stay calm. I wanted to tell them how to give him processing time and that he would seek to make them laugh. Gordon and the rest of those boys taught me so much about autism. They taught me to get to know the person, to take the time to watch and listen to how a person communicates and to allow time for someone to process my communication to them.
I was thinking about Gordon when I watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Under Lock and Key” this week about a large secure hospital for people (often children with autism and complex needs. It was classed as mental health issues but it seemed clear to me that their mental health issues were caused by not receiving the right therapy and support. Families who were desperate to get help for their children were brushed off, patronised, seemingly blamed. The children were isolated, locked up in ‘cells’, forced to have strong medications, physically abused with ‘handling’ techniques that are some of the most dangerous – and there were deaths. I wept through that programme…and prayed that Gordon never got taken to such a place.
It’s Lent and a group of us have challenged ourselves to read Isaiah 58 for the whole month of March. It’s not hard to see how these verses relate to what I am saying about Gordon and the other young people in these hospitals. There are a lot of children, young people and adults who are non-verbal and severely disabled by their autism – or to be more precise, severely disabled and frightened and anxious because they are not receiving the understanding, care and therapy that would give them a better quality of life and the ability to function in a safe and enriching environment. There are these big ‘mental hospitals’ around the country, (some of them are expanding…urrrggh) and parents often have to travel miles and miles to even visit their child.
There was a move away from ‘shutting away’ people in large mental health institutions in the 1960s and 1970s which culminated in the Mental Health Act of 1983 to move people out of these institutions and into the community – 34 years later, why do we still have these places?
As Christians, Isaiah 58 is a wake up call to us now as much as it was to the Israelites all those years ago. I am challenged to learn more about what facilities are in my area and to think about how we can reach out to those people with learning disabilities who do live in the community or with their families who either cannot access church or don’t think they would be welcome. Every person with autism or learning disabilities has a right to have religious beliefs and practices. Here is a useful document to read about that. I know there are some chaplains that do visit the big hospitals. But there is also the issue of how much they and us as Christians understand about autism or learning disabilities. As I’ve said before in this post “Don’t infantalise adults with LD” some training and learning for all of us would really help. But, like with Gordon, listening learning and respecting that person for who they are will make a huge difference. We can share our faith once we loose those chains of injustice (speak out against these hospitals, campaign for better community care, come alongside parents and people with autism/ LD as they battle against PIP assessments by people who know nothing about their condition, speak up for inclusion in our church and seek to learn what we can to help). In fact, isn’t that what sharing our faith should be…according to Isaiah 58…