At the end of my son’s first term of school, I am now in a position to reflect on whether we made the right decision to send him to a special needs school, instead of a mainstream one. I’ve also now attended his first IEP (individual education plan) meeting, with his head teacher, and three main therapists, so I know how they think it’s going too. (Those three main therapists – all provided by the school – are a speech therapist, occupational therapist, and physiotherapist who also deals with his orthotics.)
I had heard so many depressing stories from other parents about what it was like to have their autistic children in mainstream schools; always fighting for their child to be understood and supported, and having to constantly visit the school to deal with what the school perceived as problem behaviours. But that it was for the best since their child was “integrated” with “normal” children. I’d heard the opinions that special needs school were just places that difficult kids were dumped, like a babysitting service that wouldn’t challenge the child, where my child would undoubtedly pick up bad behaviours from other special needs children.
I don’t have to spend my time at my son’s school fighting for his future; his teachers and therapists are as passionate as I am about supporting and advancing him. I don’t have to endlessly explain his behaviours and challenges; they understand some of them even better than I do (and believe me, that really is saying something). They are not a “babysitting service”; they are teaching him maths, spelling, swimming, dance, art, basic life skills like cooking, you name it, it’s all there and more, and we’re seeing the flow-on benefits and skills at home.
His classroom is inviting and full of visual guides to help the students through their day; a lovely place for him to spend each school day. But he doesn’t just stay in the classroom; they take the children on field trips to shops and to watch plays and to parks too (if you have an autistic child, you know what a challenge that must be, but they do it and do it well!). He loves school, so much that he runs to his classroom every morning with a huge smile on his face, and hops into his chair eager to start the day.
I am breathtakingly happy: With my son’s progress, with the school itself, with his teachers’ and therapists’ attitudes and understanding of his challenges and his strengths. And he’s happy too. I wouldn’t swap our choice for anything, and I would fight tooth and nail to keep him there. But I don’t have to, because he has the right to go there until he is 21 if he needs to and if we want him to.
I’ve learnt that he’s excelling at maths, to the point that they’re going to introduce him to the mainstream maths curriculum slowly to see how he takes to it. I’ve learnt that he’s particularly struggling with his fine motor skills, and is performing in the bottom 2% for his age for “visual motor integration”; that it’s affecting his progress in writing and self-care skills. From talking to his teachers I now better understand how he learns, and indeed how he hides his learning deficits. They’ve done in-depth reports detailing where he is developmentally, and plan to do more to further complete the picture of where he is and how we need to help him get where he’s going.
I trust them with him, with his happiness, his safety, and his learning. It feels so intensely wonderful to trust other people with my child, in a way I never felt I could before.
We have a wonderful relationship with the teachers and therapists; they recognise the hard work we put in for the past five years, and the ongoing work at home. And we of course recognise the amazing dedication they have to our son. They’ve surpassed all my expectations for a special needs school (a public one at that), and they’re helping my son to surpass my expectations for his long-term prospects too. It’s a long road ahead, with no guarantees, but I’m glad they’ll be with us on that journey.
If you’re interested in further reading about the choice between a special needs and mainstream school for an autistic child, see two of my previous posts: “Socialization as a reason to mainstream special needs children” and “A Right to the Wrong Education?“.