There are certain skills required for learning, that need to be actively taught to children like my son: Skills that are taken for granted in most “normal” children, and therefore skills that are not a natural part of the curriculum in a mainstream school. Because of this, it was in my son’s best interests to start his schooling at a Special Needs school, where they understood and worked on his issues with basic verbal communication, sensory and anxiety issues, and inappropriate and disruptive behaviours that he has little awareness or control over. He also struggled with the most basic social skills, so working on this – along with all those other issues – were part of his daily curriculum alongside maths, art, reading, and all the other usual topics.
It’s given him the grounding that he now needs to enter mainstream schooling; or rather, to attempt to enter mainstream schooling. Whether that attempt is successful or not ultimately depends on what supports and therapies he will be able to access within the mainstream environment. He is still entitled to some of what he received in a Special School, but I have been warned that it would be far less frequent, more difficult to access, and will quite possibly be inadequate for his current needs.
So why are we attempting to mainstream him, knowing full well he will lose significant supports and services that he still requires?
In part it is because of his age. My son is seven, and we have been told that if we leave it much longer, the difference between him and his school peers will become too obvious, making it harder to successfully (if ever) integrate him into mainstreaming.
Again then, why do we want to mainstream him at all? That comes back to the very things that get taken for granted in mainstream schools, the things that he cannot readily access in a Special School: The frequent and daily opportunities to practice and have more challenging social interactions and conversations. My son doesn’t really have someone who is his “equal” in this area in his current class, to practice with, other than adults; adults who can’t give him that level of one-on-one tutoring (socially or academically) because they have a group of other high-needs students that they must also teach: If one student doesn’t fit well into the class anymore, and giving them what they need will impact too much on their classroom peers, it makes sense to find a better fit for them. This is the same reasoning that might be behind taking a child out of a mainstream school and placing them in a Special School, here it is just running in the other direction.
So, in a very real sense, I am being forced to choose between the therapies my son still needs (occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy, etc), and a more suitable (more challenging) education and social environment. It occurs to us as his parents that we could keep him in the Special School and supplement him with higher education opportunities outside of the classroom. Similarly we could put him in mainstream and attempt to supplement with extra hours of therapies. Neither option is ideal for a raft of reasons, including time, money and the daily experiences he’d still be having within each school. And yes I’ve thought about homeschooling him, but I have another young child and a part-time job, so homeschooling is not ideal right now either.
I need the school that doesn’t seem to exist: The one between mainstreaming and Special School. Perhaps, an autism specific school, for children who still need to access therapies everyday, and as part of their curriculum, but are being more academically and socially challenged like in the classic mainstream environment. I want a school where my son has someone with experience and knowledge about autism, keeping an eye on him, but also keeping enough distance to encourage his independence and confidence. A school that provides enough structure for security and safety, but enough freedom for self-expression and self-discovery. A school that wants my son to be there, and feels confident that they are properly resourced and knowledgable enough to cope with his challenges.
A school, that doesn’t exist; at least not here, and not now.
In a way, an important way, I think every school could and should be like that which I described; one that is willing and able to respond to each individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, whilst providing the general opportunities of social interaction and independence that come from the school experience. I’m aware that modern homeschooling does meet those key criteria – when it’s understood that part of the homeschooling curriculum is actively engaging the child in social experiences too – so I can see why that option is so popular among parents of autistic children who just don’t seem to fit in either a Special School or a mainstream school.
For now though, we as a family must make the choice, which in its starkest form, is that between therapy and education. We have to make the decision now. If we make the right decision, we can change my son’s life for the better; the wrong one, could stagnate him or even make his development go backwards (towards higher anxieties and social withdrawal, for instance). This is not about choosing between different decile schools, and who’s of my friends’ kids go where, and what school is linked with good university entrance rates, or any of those typical issues other parents talk about. For my family, this is about choosing a type of future, and not having enough options to feel secure that any choice we make will genuinely be in my son’s best interests right now. I don’t truly know what to do.
If you’ve had to make a choice like this, what did you do, did it turn out well?
What would you do?