I came across a post asking whether families with autistic children really should be entitled to pay less for “ordinary activities”. Here “ordinary activities” refers to activities like sports groups or zoo visits; ones that aren’t specifically tailored to autistic children (compared to therapy sessions or special needs groups). The purported justification behind letting families with autistic children pay less for attending these ordinary activities, is financial hardship, since it is financially taxing to raise a special needs child. If that is the justification for lower (or no) fees, then the suggestion is that is unfair; many people struggle with finances, and some families with autistic children do not struggle with finances, so why should they be given a fee-break on the back of having an autistic child?
I was surprised to see the discussion presented in this light. It is not how I have ever thought of why autistic children should be able to attend ordinary activities for lower fees. Though realising other people see the question in this way, helps me to better understand the rather snooty and judgmental responses I have sometimes received when asking event or activity organisers whether they provided cheaper fees for special needs families: If they thought I was simply after a cheap ride, I can better understand why they thought I had a cheek to even enquire. I’ve even had some places say they didn’t want to sign forms that would have made a government organisation pay me back for the fees I gave them.
Here’s how I’ve always thought about why families like mine should get cheaper access: Having an autistic child makes it hard to get out of the car at the destination, get in the door where the activity is being held, and remain there for the full length of the activity. And that’s if the child is even willing or able to take part in the activity. There are so many sensory, communication and general behavioural challenges with these children, that paying the full amount to attend and attempt these activities, does not appear to be fair and equal. The child is unlikely to get the enjoyment, benefit and learning that is comparatively highly likely for “ordinary” children. There is not equal value, so why pay equal amounts?
The predictable reply here is that some other children will also not enjoy or participate in the event, but are expected to pay full price. But the category of autistic children as a whole, makes it far less likely, and it seems fair to me that the organisation acknowledge and respond to that very real and appreciable difference. There is something especially relevant here about autistic children, rather than just special needs children: Our kids specifically do not respond well to change. They crave routine and predictability. So trying something new – no matter what that new thing may be – is a challenge in itself.
There isn’t really an “ordinary” activity for our children. They are all challenging because our children are challenging; you can’t just switch off the autism, or find activities where autism is totally irrelevant. Even when autistic children are passionate about taking part in an activity, they need help to move-on when it’s finished, or not to just end up loudly stimming their happiness to the degree that the other children can’t take part too.
What about the extra supervision that our children often need at such activities; maybe we should be paying more, not less (I have seen this argued). But how often do our families just dump our children at ordinary activities? We are far more likely to be the unpaid parent helpers who stay to help our children understand and take part in the event. In fact, in my experience, us parents turn into helpers for the rest of the children too – the ones who don’t have special needs but need help tying a shoe-lace or can’t get a move quite right, and end up asking the closest adult. For a far-too-long time I was the reliable unpaid parent-help at my son’s mainstream kindergarten; I turned up and stayed to help my son, but I ended up dealing with all the other children – changing their outfits for dress-up, helping build that block castle, even breaking up fights and soothing an injured child.
I will always respect the right of the activity providers to charge whatever they like; I’m not arguing for compulsory cheap fees, or that providers charging full price are immoral or ignorant. I would like to think though that if they understood all these special challenges – and that our children might end up excelling at and loving their activities given the chance – they would consider lower fees. It’s often government bodies providing subsidised prices anyway, through various bodies and funding, so no point beating up the service providers. Putting that aside, the principal aim of this post was an effort to explain what I see as legitimate reasons for lower fees. (And I haven’t even addressed the good financial sense it makes to offer lower fees to families who otherwise wouldn’t consider attending at all.)
Clearly in this post I have been talking from personal experiences with my son. I haven’t previously sought the opinions of families who have autistic children about how they feel about paying full fees for ordinary activities (which is clear when you consider my surprise that people would think it’s only a question of the family’s income). So now that I’ve shared my own views, and why I have them, I would be very interested in hearing yours too.