Sending your autistic/ADHD child to school can be heart-breaking. How I made it a joy.

A child with special needs playing

Sending your autistic/ADHD child to school can be heart-breaking. How I made it a joy.

A child with special needs playing

Schools are supposed to be safe places. But for kids with additional needs, they can often feel anything but safe.

My six-year-old, Harry, who is autistic started school today…

Over the past few years, I’ve read countless stories of kids being harshly disciplined for not being capable of doing what is ‘expected’ of them, horrendous bullying and of cases of kids absconding, because they’re so traumatised. Understandably, I was more than a tad concerned.

Kids grow up in their own good time — and that’s OK

It’s estimated that approximately one in ten kids is neurodivergent — or who has neurologically atypical patterns of thoughts and/or behaviours. It includes a number of groups such as those who are autistic, and those who have ADHD, dyslexia or dyscalculia (difficulty with maths) for example. 

On average, that’s at least two neurodivergent kids in each classroom. Despite this, many teachers have little or no training in how to teach these kids effectively and to meet their particular needs.

Schools that specifically catetr to thier needs are far and few between and have strict criteria for accepting children. Mainstream schools do get some additional resources to support kids with additonal needs but, in reality, most schools aren’t adequately resourced to do so effectively.

What’s clear is that when our kids are adaquately supported, these differences don’t mean they’re destined for failure. They can realise many of their goals and often do geat things but may do so in a different time-frame. When we let go of our developmental expectations, this can make parenting our kids SO much easier. 

But at school, this can be more difficult.

A one-size-fits-all system is not good enough

When it comes to child development, all kids are on their own individual trajectory and, yet, there is an expectation that kids starting school will all be able to behave the same.

This is especially difficult for autistic kids and those with ADHD because they’re often developmentally a long way behind their peers in particular ways.

But because these kid are also often very articulate and capable in other ways it’s assumed that they just need to “try harder” or that they’re purposely being defiant. More often than not, nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s often not enough support

Many kids who need one-on-one support don’t receive it and this impacts the whole school community. It’s stressful for these kids, for the teachers and can impact the whole class.

But what many schools on’t seem to realise is that many strategies designed to serve the majority of children with additional needs benefit all children. Teachers learning to better cater to the needs of these kids does not mean that they must become experts in each child’s specific condition.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or model of learning.

As our kids’ advocates, we can play an important role in helping teachers understand this by partnering with them to help them understand and meet thier needs. When we do this from a place of partnership and understanding that they are stretched very thin, this can make a really big difference. 

What I learned as I tried to set my kiddo up to successfully transition to school

1)      Shop around

Don’t be afraid to ask to meet with principals and to ask them lots of questions. Ask about their experience and training. Ask them to tell you what strategies they use to help kids regulate their emotions, and how they create a strong sense of belonging and make sure kids feel safe.

2)      Meet with other parents from local schools

If you know anyone who is part of the school community you’re considering sending your child to, ask if they know of another parent who has a child with additional needs. See if they’ll meet you for a coffee and a chat, and ask them how well they feel the school is meeting their kid’s needs. 

3)      Create resources for teachers

Teachers have information overload, so creating simple, concise visual materials that they can refer to can be a Godsend to help them meet your child’s needs. 

I involved my son in creating a one-page profile about his strengths and what supports him to thrive. Google ‘one page profile’ for templates.

4)      Get your child “school ready”

There are countless ways you can assist your child to be as ready as they possibly can be for school. The main ways I have approached this are through school visits, walks or scooter rides past the school during the holidays, and creating a book with my child about what to expect.

We took photos when we visited the school and used these in his book, but you can also do drawings about what to expect. I’m pleased to report Harry is very excited to be starting school!

5)      Partner with the teachers and senior staff members

Advocating for your child is paramount. But as I’ve already mentioned,  how you go about it will make a huge difference. Your teachers will likely welcome you sharing strategies with them and educating them about your child’s condition and how they can meet their needs.

Be sure to keep the information you provide concise and be sensitive to the fact that teachers are often overloaded. They will also respond more positively if you recognise and compliment them on what they are doing well instead of just focusing on what needs to be improved.

6)      Assessments, assessments, assessments

While I’m conscious of not ‘pathologising’ autism. Now that I’m better educated, I see it as a difference as opposed to a disease’.  This is why, in our family, we refer to Harry as autistic as opposed to someone ‘with’ autism.

He is proud of his special brain. I wouldn’t change my boy for the world: there are so many incredible silver linings.

However, the fact is that the funding support that we get to help our kids thrive when they have different needs to their peers is dependent on expert reports about what they have difficulties with. Examples include developmental capability assessments, cognitive assessments, speech and language assessments and auditory function.

We have managed to secure a huge amount of funding to support Harry, both with one-on-one support we are providing and through the school. I could not be more confident he is set up for success 

What can everyone who is part of a school community do?

For all students, school success and wellbeing depend enormously on ensuring that children feel a sense of belonging. Sadly, Australia is not faring well in this regard, as this article shows. School communities, government and independent school bodies all have a role to play in better promoting belonging.

Parents of kids without complex needs have an important role to play in modelling an attitude of understanding and acceptance within the school community. Promote an attitude of acceptance and openness—help your kids see that difference is not a bad thing. 

Be a good role model by reaching out to others who are different and encourage your kids to do the same, to be inclusive:  to invite kids with disabilities to their birthday party or to the park and to pick them for team games.

I’m pleased to say, after one day I’m sure Harry will be supported to create a strong sense of belonging. He LOVED it and can’t wait to go back tomorrow! It’s early days but so far so good.

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