28 Jan Sending your autistic child to school can be heart-breaking. How I made it a joy.
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”—a word that is sometimes used to describe people who have neurologically atypical patterns of thoughts and/or behaviours. It includes a number of groups such as those who have autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and more.
That’s at least two kids in most classrooms. Despite this, many teachers have little or no training in how to teach these kids effectively and to meet their particular needs.
Special schools are far and few between and have strict criteria for accepting children. Mainstream schools do get some additional resources to support kids with special needs but, in reality, most schools are not adequately resourced to do so effectively.
A one-size-fits-all system is not good enough
When it comes to child development, kids are all 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 are often developmentally much further 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. t’s stressful for these kids, for the teachers and it can impact the whole class.
Importantly, 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.
What I learned about setting exceptional kids up to successfully transition to school
1) Shop around
Don’t be afraid to ask to meet with principles 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, create a strong sense of belonging and to feel safe.
2) Meet with other parents from local schools
If you know anyone who is part of the school community you are considering sending your child to, see if they know of another parent who has a child with special 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 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.
However, 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
This is a tricky one, as I’m really 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 of the matter is, the support—largely in the form of funding— 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 special 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 special needs to their birthday party or to the park and to pick them for team games.
I’m pleased to say, after one day I am certain that 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.
It’s a stressful time for the whole family
Making things work and remaining positive is not easy during stressful times. Yet being very stressed makes it much more difficult for you to provide the support your child needs to make their transition to school a positive experience.
Check out our Free Stress Management Course for Parents of Kids with Special Needs that has been designed specifically with time-poor parents in mind. Because when you’re less stressed, your whole family benefits and everything goes more smoothly.
Let’s all do everything we can to support every child with special needs—and their families—who are starting school this year. May they find true connection, a deep sense of belonging and be set up to reach their full potential far into the future. .