System Error – the Education System and Children on the Autistic Spectrum

Rebecca McAlister writes about her experiences of the education system as the parent of a child on the autistic spectrum.

“I love how literature has been used as a medium through which to connect to and raise the profile of the vulnerable in our society. I have written a number of articles in the past for different publications, the most recent of which focused on children with an Autism diagnosis and their experience of festivities in the city. Having completed a Creative Writing Course at Queen’s, I am currently working on a young adult piece of fiction which explores the role children / young people are socially assigned to in fulfilling the needs and reaffirming the chosen identities of adults / parents / authority figures, to the detriment of their own.”

Lagan Online seeks to encourage and promote new writing from Northern Ireland, with poetry, prose and factual pieces on social issues, such as health and education. Tying in with Reading Rooms‘s work on Reading Development, delivering sessions with children and young people with autism (mainly on a 1:1 basis), we aim to be a place where ‘every story matters’, especially within the education system where every pupil’s story and experience is equally important.

In ‘System Failure’, Rebecca has succinctly blended her Creative Writing degree with her in-depth personal experience of Autistic Spectrum Disorder as the main carer for her young son. We’re honoured to be able to showcase this piece from an up and coming local writer to our followers, and we hope this will encourage others to write on similar matters.

System Error

The conveyor belt screeches to an abrupt halt. The steel cogs powering the machine secrete the lingering shrieks of a frustrated yawn as the wheels begin to decelerate in slow motion. They are tired of the irritating malfunctions which have continued to interrupt their daily production line. Start, stop, start, stop…breakdown. The Head Clone will not be satisfied.

The maniacal smiling clones glide towards me, fingers entwined. There is a ‘glitch’ in the engine again, they say.  He is my son.  Their heads cock to one side simultaneously as they tell me not to worry – they will fetch the oil and slot him right back in.

‘That’s what a glitch like him needs – just a little extra oil,’ they wink at me.

I feel like I’m in a trance. I have been called in from home to ‘bear witness’ to the fact that they are indeed adhering to the stipulated legal protocol necessary to reinsert him back into the machine. They block my view of him until I sign my name on the dotted line.

‘There’s no shame in having problems at home…we understand it must be challenging to be a single parent in these modern times’, they whisper to me with a smirk and a second wink.

Their function settings have obviously been set to Mode – Patronise. Echoes of false pity resonate around the engine room.

‘After all, all the other children here are very happy.’ 

I turn to argue against them, to emphasise the point that this ‘malfunction’ has NOT been caused by my son’s reaction to some sort of broken home – this is a problem caused by their refusal to upgrade the machine’s internal fittings to accommodate the needs of a child who experiences the world more sensitively and intensely. Just like so many others around him. That, with a little support, and a slight adjustment to include individual settings in that clunky big machine of theirs, this child would not be in a constant state of crippling anxiety, so fearful of getting it wrong – no protection for his senses or emotions in that loud, intimidating engine room.

The words crawl up my chest and scrape at the back of my throat threatening to spew out bitterly. But it’s too late.  The clones have already left to fetch the oil. What is the point in trying to explain it to them anyway?  Even when they look like they’re listening to me, their programming ensures that they cannot fully hear me – when I speak, their settings automatically switch to Mode -Defensive.

They hate me being here but I’ve been pushy.  A ‘pushy parent’, ‘a nuisance’. Cue their scheduled eye rolls. They hate the scrutiny they think I bring with my presence. A magnifying glass closing in on their production rates.  The rates are not the thing I care about though.

They only fear this because they can sense deep down that they are covering up for something highly immoral, sinister even, hidden behind legal policy jargon and protocol.    A vortex swirling furiously with corruption, threatening to seep through the gaps in their cloned masks.  The risk of them admitting this truth to themselves however, is too great. It is easier to believe the lies, easier to believe that they are powerless in reinventing the wheel. After all, the act of perfect cloning doesn’t come without its costs and to the ego and neurosis of the Head Clone, these costs are well worth it.  Production is key. The true ethos here is system centred, not child centred.

They disappear for what seems like hours leaving me staring at him – my superhero, their glitch. Blinking away the tears, I force an ‘it’ll be all right’ smile. Guilt drowning us both. Me – because I feel like I’ve failed him, allowing him to be dismissed in this way by the world. Him – because he cannot mould himself into what he thinks everyone wants him to be, a ‘good boy’ who doesn’t express his needs too loudly in case it interferes with production rates.

I thank my lucky stars that I was close by when they called.  I dread to think of the permanent damage they could have done if I hadn’t been on hand.  They would have tried to reform him, misshape him, hammer him down just to fit back into their machine. But they had to follow protocol and contact me.  So that this conveyor belt can keep producing all its ducks in a row, well kids in a row – whatever, it doesn’t really matter to them. As long as the row is straight.

All kids moving swiftly along on the belt in single file, smiling politely, nodding obediently – but never too excitedly.  All glazed eyes, expressions and outfits matching each other.  All matching. All pristine.

The clones don’t appear to feel guilt…don’t appear to feel anything. They return to us with two buckets filled with oil.  I feel sick. I don’t think I can let them do this again today, but what’s the alternative? These smiling demons stare at me, nodding repeatedly like I don’t have a choice. They have been striving to expand this clone-production business with the side effect of shrinking the self-esteem of the innocent in order to inflate the ego of the Head Clone.

Not today.

I grab his hand and make a break for the neon Exit sign – ‘this is against regulations, Miss’ I hear them calling after me, their voices slowing robotically as though they need charged urgently.  My son runs to the conveyor belt and kicks its base, tears silently streaming down his cheeks. We escape the engine room and run home.

Time for a new system. The corruption far outweighs the benefits now. Time to throw out the old machine and unmask the clones. Start with the basics; personal development, recognition and appreciation of the individual.


Originally from North Belfast, Rebecca McAlister studied English literature at Queen’s University whilst writing and editing for the Student Issues section of the Queen’s Student’s Union Magazine, addressing issues such as racist attacks in the Holylands, misogyny and the difficulties facing Student Parents. She went on to work for 7 years as a Community Worker/Young Women’s Engagement Worker in South Belfast, during which time she gained qualifications in Community Facilitation, Mental Health First Aid and Certificates in Peace & Reconciliation . She has also freelanced as a Consultant, providing evaluative support and reports for charitable organisations. She has been a Director on the Board of Partisan Productions since 2009. Rebecca has in depth personal experience of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and is currently the main carer for her young son. She has recently returned to writing, having completed a Creative Writing course in 2016 at Queen’s through the Open University.

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