Ahead of ASK’s Annual Information Day we talked to Lori Crowley, parent of three children, two with special educational needs

Can you tell us about your children?

I have three children. My eldest has graduated university. My middle child had challenges in school, which we didn’t recognise properly, but he made it to university and is now in his third year. My youngest is 11 years old and has high-functioning autism. He has been successfully attending a local international school, but he could use some additional support.

The one thing I have learned about parenting is that all kids have the same challenges; it’s just that some experience them more intensely. That’s the difference between special needs parenting and parenting a typically developing child. Same music – different volume!

Can you tell us more about your life and work?

In my work as a grief counsellor in the US, working at the local Crisis Centre, I was called out when there was a death in the community. At one stage, there was a cluster of suicides at a school in my neighbourhood, mainly of students between the ages of 11-13. The recurring theme in the notes they left behind was that they were not good enough. In one particular case, a girl had only managed a B+ rather than an A in Maths and she felt a failure. This began to crystallise the idea that even if these students were doing OK, in their minds they weren’t.

I later attended a seminar by the International Dyslexia Association entitled “Put yourself in the Shoes of a Dyslexic” which included a workshop that challenged and gave you the opportunity to experience and understand the frustrations of those with Dyslexia. These two events led me to create the Ability Awareness Programme. I helped put the programme together with a group of volunteers; parents and educators. It includes activities at which you are supposed to fail and feel frustrated. I found that this helped open up dialogue and a sharing between students. This improved communication and social interaction led to less aggressive behaviour amongst the students. The message I sought increasingly to convey was that you can’t be good at everything and that’s true for everyone. The programme also helped train teachers through its use of tools from the International Dyslexia Association.

I then started a buddy programme targeted at students with SEN which changed the perception of those with special educational needs; they effectively became the cool ones, part of a club of which you were privileged to be a member.

What have you done that makes you most proud?

Developing the idea of finding a common language in which you can communicate, whoever you are, rather than feeling you’re on an island feeling isolated.

What has been your greatest frustration as a parent of children with SEN?

The fact I don’t have a crystal ball to see the future to help me make valuable decisions; I am forced to be patient and make decisions based on the information I have, even when this is incomplete. I wish I knew how hard to push my son and how hard to challenge him in things he finds difficult.

What would you change in the current SEN provision?

I wish there were more vocational offerings; I feel sometimes that SEN has been devalued. I cite the example from a teachers’ conference when a teacher suggested children grew out of their issues on the basis: “We don’t hear about these issues when they’re adults”. I would argue the children don’t grow out of their challenges, they grow out of school.

Can you tell us about what you will be talking about at ASK Annual Information Day?

I am going to pose the question “Are we Doing the Right Things for our Children with Special Educational Needs?” I would like to give parents and educators a clearer way to figure out what the right thing is and when is the right time. We need to give the message to all our children that it’s OK to fail. Failure is a necessary and natural part of learning and everyone experiences it; we just need to do it without feeling hopeless and useless.