My almost five year old son started in mainstream primary school this September. He has a vast and extraordinary vocabulary but cannot speak socially. In other words, he will list of all the countries in the world and their capital cities, in alphabetical order, or will count to a thousand without skipping a beat. But he can’t answer questions, follow verbal directions, or tell you what he needs.
We are very lucky to have the help of a full-time SNA, and this is what tipped the scales for us when deciding whether to enrol him in a mainstream school. I tried tirelessly to get a meeting with her and his soon-to-be teacher over the summer, but this never happened due to scheduling issues. The principal, however, assured me they have all his reports and spoke at length with his pre-school key worker and felt very prepared to take good care of him.
But two weeks into September, I realised how detrimental that was for my son.
He was ‘toilet trained’ (to an extent, he needs to be taken to the bathroom regularly) for eight months before school started and yet he had almost daily accidents in class because ‘he never told them he needed to go’ and ‘never answered them when they asked him if he needed to go.’
He had homework such as, ‘talk to your family about their favourite colours.’ His much-loved Cheese strings came home in his school bag everyday because he can’t open them himself but ‘never asked anyone to open them for him.’ When I asked his teacher at pick-up time, how he got on that day, I was told things like ‘he was very happy, he plays with the maps while we do story time.’ She didn’t have time to tell me why he wasn’t required to take part in story time himself.
It felt like it was a huge mistake going mainstream.
Realising a lot of this was my fault, I demanded an emergency meeting that could not wait until his IEP, due to take place mid-October after he had settled in. Turns out, his SNA was unaware of the fact he was non-verbal as she was told his excellent academic skills in the areas of astronomy, geography and numbers. She was also unaware that she needed to take him to the toilet at regular intervals because she was told he was toilet trained.
All these problems were easily remedied by a 10-minute meeting that should have happened before he was placed in their care. This meeting, and my request that we start a daily communications diary all proved to be very effective. His team now have a rounded knowledge of his skills and his difficulties and I am getting daily updates on what he achieved and struggled with that day. His team are now fully equipped and totally prepared to do everything I have asked them to do, and more.
I thought this was all I needed to ease my anxiety and yet, peace still eluded me. I wanted so desperately to ask him how his day went and for him to tell me, but unfortunately, I think we are still a long way away from that.
Due to the nature of autism and how our country woefully and disgracefully lets down our children with autism in the vital areas of speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychology services, my son can’t tell me how his day was.
But then something wonderful happened. Spurred on by a hilarious conversation my husband had in the yard with some boys from his class, I noticed two of his classmates in the library one day and I spoke to them (with the permission of the adult with them, of course). They told me he’s the teacher’s pet, meant as a compliment as this is a coveted position in junior infants, because he can already list off all the Irish words without looking at the board and without the teacher even ASKING him… he just stands up now and then and recites that weeks Irish! They told me about the day he downloaded an app on the teacher’s phone when she wasn’t watching and then they all got to play it. They were amazed at his computer skills. He is just ‘so cool’ apparently!
They were told that he doesn’t talk to them because he has something called ‘autumnism’ so they mind him. They said if anyone tried to say anything to him or slag him out in yard, they’d go straight to the teacher because ‘he might be too shy to do it himself’. My heart swelled.
The government and the system may be letting my son down every day of the week, but his neuro-typical and diverse peers, and their parents who have taught them to be inclusive, have his back. For this, I am eternally grateful.
If you are reading and have never thought to discuss children with special needs with your children (because, honestly and shamefully, before it affected me, I don’t think I ever thought too much about it) maybe you could take a few minuets to do that today and maybe your kids will one day make some very worried mamas day!