Don't Let a SEN Label Stop You Writing

15th February 2021
5 min read
18th February 2021
Jo Boon

Most of us begin our journey as writers in school. Some would say that this is something forced upon them; whilst for others it is their fondest memory of the classroom and sets them on a course of creativity for the rest of their lives. For no one, however, should writing stories be seen as ‘off limits.’

The world of education has become more aware of Special Educational Needs in recent years – with more people receiving diagnosis and more TA’s supporting learners in the classroom. In many ways, this has been a positive thing for students and has increased children’s ability to access the curriculum. However, for some, the label of ‘dyslexia’, ‘autism’ or ‘ADHD’ comes down like a red stamp over their work: saying ‘I can’t.’

This is not the case.

Many of our most famous writers had their own experience of SEN and yet have created masterpieces that continued to influence us today. When Hans Christian Anderson lived and wrote, the term ‘autism’ wasn’t used. However, the psychiatrist, Professor Michael Fitzgerald, has popularised the idea that Anderson seems to have had many of the characters of Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems that Anderson’s own story, The Ugly Duckling, was inspired by his feelings of being an outsider and different from those around him. This story has become a cultural touch point across many countries and resonates with many individuals: who, at one time or another, hasn’t felt like an outsider?

The idea that this story of being an outsider could bring people together, should give all of us hope. Perhaps most particularly to those who have an SEN label or are anywhere on a spectrum of learning needs. Our shared story of feeling excluded comes, quite possibly, from the mind of someone within the autistic community.

So, how can we ensure that children (or adults!) who have been given an SEN label still feel that they can take part in the joy of creating stories?

Firstly, allow time and space to let creativity flow: do not assume what makes a ‘good’ story in advance. All children need to be allowed to explore in their own time and I am endlessly amazed by the originality of children’s imaginations. This can be even more the case for children with SEN. They may not initially create stories in the way you expect. Try to resist the temptation to steer them in a particular direction – allow their creativity to build and develop naturally over time.

Secondly, spelling and grammar does not always need to come first. Ultimately, the purpose of these things is to create a shared experience of language that makes reading easier to follow – akin to the rhythms of the spoken word. Is it important? Undoubtedly. Should it stand in the way of creativity? Absolutely not. Especially for children who struggle to retain large bodies of information – remove this pressure to begin with. Let them write, create, explore… then go back and take another look, when they feel ready.

Thirdly, explore other options for how stories could be communicated. The process of writing can be incredibly tiring, or even painful, for some people – but it is not the only way to share a story. There are lots of modern day options that get around this problem: they could simply type instead, they could record their story as a voice note or they could combine the two by using a programme that will type the words that are spoken. Some seem resistant to incorporating this kind of technology in the creative process. However, it’s important to remember that stories did not start by being written down, nor have we always had the printing press. The physicality and pressures of writing put many students off. So why not remove those pressures and return to an oral tradition? Speaking stories aloud, hearing the rhythms and sharing them with others is a magical experience that no one needs to be excluded from.

Finally, give confidence to those you know with SEN and share the stories of what others have achieved to give hope. Most writers I know doubt themselves at one time or another. Think how much harder that is if you have been told that you do not understand others in the same way, or that reading will always be a challenge with you. Share the stories with others who have overcome these challenges. F Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, is thought to have had dyslexia, dropped out of university and was described by his editor as a ‘lamentable speller.’ Yet his novel, helped re-define the literary landscape. This is why it matters that people’s voices do not get lost. I, for one, would not want to live in a world without The Ugly Duckling.

Jo Boon is a Literacy Specialist for the Laurus Trust. She runs small group interventions for students with SEN or other literacy needs, to ensure they can access the curriculum and develop a love of creativity at their own pace. She works as a freelance journalist, writing for titles such as the BBC, the Times Education Supplement and Teach Wire.

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