Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Let's joyfully embrace difference

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Government's dismissive attitude to those who don't fit in reflects poorly on NZ.
Dimitri Leemans with his partner, Francoise Duperoux, and their daughter Margaux. Photo / Michael Craig
Dimitri Leemans with his partner, Francoise Duperoux, and their daughter Margaux. Photo / Michael Craig

This is what joy feels like. Every day the past week my kids have got up and argued with me. Does an Up&Go constitute a proper breakfast? That's not the good bit. Afterwards, they happily trot off to school. Oh, bliss!

Only parents who have had kids who've been miserable at school will know how traumatic that is and understand the relief when they are happy. I really hate people giving me advice, but if you're reading this and your kid tells you they simply deplore the school they're at, and there are alternatives, I would strongly urge you to listen to them.

We just moved our daughter from a rigidly-organised, private school - where she was miserable - back to a state school and it felt so accepting, compassionate and wonderfully kind. She has brilliant teachers who understand her.

Our son goes to a small and alternative school which I adore with a passion but the school likes to keep a low profile so it's more than my life is worth to write about it.

Both of them have struggled at various times to fit in to the mainstream school system and in his first year at school my son had a fulltime teacher aide, partly funded by us. But now they are both learning and developing in what seems to be a normal way because they feel accepted and supported.

If your kid is a bit different from the mainstream, you may appreciate how relieved I am feeling. We are lucky. That is why I feel especially angry on behalf of other parents of quirky or disabled kids who are struggling and being let down by this Government.

The Herald on Sunday reported yesterday that Auckland University maths professor Dimitri Leemans has decided to leave the country because immigration authorities have refused residency for his 13-year-old stepson, Peter Gourle, who has autism.

I was outraged by this story, not least because if Professor Leemans' stepson was brought into this country, he would struggle to get much government support anyway. The services are simply not there.

Last week, new research showed 90 per cent of special needs co-ordinators believe children with special needs are not getting the support they need to learn. I didn't need a report to tell me that. We are not an enlightened country in our policies to non-compliant kids.

These days we understand that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a continuum that goes from severe, in which people may be non-verbal, through to oddballs and eccentrics and brilliant scientists and engineers. (And no, not everyone is like Raymond in Rain Man.)

Peter Gourle. Photo / Supplied
Peter Gourle. Photo / Supplied

The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says all disabled people, including people with autism, have the right to be welcomed and supported into our families, schools, communities and workplaces.

Do we do that? Sometimes, but that seems to be due to some exceptional individuals struggling against the system, rather than the design of the system itself.

Steve Silberman, author of an award-winning analysis of autism, Neurotribes, argues the "cure" for the most disabling aspects of autism is to be found in understanding teachers, accommodating employers, supportive communities and parents who believe in their potential.

I would argue this inclusiveness is not just self-serving bias or bleeding heart do-goodism but may even be sound in a business sense.

"It comes back to diversity. I can't tell you that if you bring in a bunch of weird and different people, then a bunch of good things will happen. But I can tell you that if you hire a bunch of similar people and promote only the ones who are most similar, a bunch of bad things are likely to happen." That is Wharton Professor Adam Grant in his new book Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World.

Professor Grant doesn't specifically write about autism, but when he praises the creativity of outsiders who are prepared to challenge groupthink, I can't help thinking many of those people would be on the spectrum.

They are people such as activist and scientist Temple Grandin who has ASD but has made significant contributions in her field. She says: "If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the face of the Earth, then men would still be socialising in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave. Because who do you think made the first stone spear? The Aspergers guy."

Professor Grandin argues if you got rid of all autism genetics there would be no Silicon Valley and the energy crisis would not be solved.

Our Government should listen to her. And apologise to Professor Leemans and his family. We take a dismissive attitude to those who don't fit in at our peril. We can't afford to write off kids with special needs. They might be the ones who will solve some of our biggest problems. Oh, and give us joy.

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- NZ Herald

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