It’s been 4 days since it happened and I still feel angry!
If you know me you’d know just how out of character this is for me. I’m easy going, laid back, at times maybe even too much. But right now I’m furious.
For the first time on our journey with autism we experienced what it felt like to be discriminated against.
For someone to exclude one of our sons because of their needs.
I didn’t expect the first time to be at the hands of a school. Certainly not at the hands of a special needs school
Last week we went to visit another school for Tommy, a school that we had high hopes for.
If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning you might remember that after careful consideration we had decided to defer Tommy’s start of his school life for a year. There were many reasons for this, which I covered in this post here.
Finding the perfect school hasn’t been any easier this year.
We’ve been to visit more mainstream schools where, if we were to choose one of these, Tommy would receive a full-time one on one assistant. He has an educational statement that means the funding would be supplied for the school to provide him with this extra assistance he would need.
The schools we’ve visited have been welcoming, asked all the right questions, and done their most to show us they would do everything they could to include Tommy and meet his needs.
Some of them have had more experience than others with autism, their knowledge and understanding clear from our conversations as we tour the facilities. As we would describe Tommy to them, some seemed confident their school could meet his needs, whilst others filled us with less confidence, but they all showed willing, and a desire to do their best if we chose their school.
None of them felt right though.
In mainstream schools, the typical class size is 28-30 children in our area. The noise, and sensory input this creates made it hard for me to focus in the classrooms, let alone an autistic child sensitive to sound.
In some classes we saw the children who had a one-to-one support sitting in the corner of the classroom, facing away from their classmates. This felt like it defeated the object of integrating Tommy into a mainstream environment if it means the only way he can cope, or be taught, is to be separated from the group.
Each school we saw told us they would have to recruit an assistant to work with Tommy rather than use an existing member of staff. When we dug further we were told that the assistant was likely to have little or no experience of autism too. From talking to other parents the turnover in these roles can be quite high too.
So, we’ve been looking at special needs schools and mainstream schools over the last year. Jude attends an SLD school (severe learning disability), and there are also 2 MLD schools in our area (moderate learning disability).
An MLD school was something we were really keen to see, as Jude and Tommy’s needs are so different.
The first MLD school had no places for children under 7.
They were still more than happy to show me around and tell me all about their school, in case it was of interest in the future. I was impressed. It seemed to have the best of both worlds, the understanding, compassion, and increased staffing levels of a special needs school, combined with the facilities and curriculum of a mainstream school.
So when the second MLD school told us they do take children from the age of 5, we couldn’t wait to go and see it.
We had our first visit just before Christmas, only to be told when we arrived that there’d been a mix up and every primary class (age 5-11) were out on a trip that day.
Ok, frustrating, but these things happen.
We were shown around the school by the headmaster, looked in on the older classes, and took a look at the empty classrooms of the younger children. After the tour, we spent some time in his office discussing Tommy, and what we could expect if he started their school.
To be honest, he didn’t fill me with confidence. Every headteacher I’d met in the various schools we’ve visited over the years, were all very polished, knew their pitch, and were good sales people of the merits of their school. This conversation was never free-flowing, he’d seemed slightly uncomfortable as we toured the classrooms and didn’t interact with the children as well as we hoped.
But, everything else on the visit seemed promising.
He told us that if we thought the school was a good match we could bring Tommy in for an hour or two to spend some time in Class 1 for the teachers to get to know him, and see how he’d cope in this environment. This sounded like a good idea, it would help us make the right decision.
We agreed to come back again and see class 1 at work, so we could make a better-informed decision, and get to meet who would be Tommy’s first teacher.
So last week, the day finally came and we went back to see the school, and our experience left me appalled.
The headmaster met us in reception, looked at us blankly, and clearly didn’t remember our names.
Ok, no real problem.
He couldn’t remember Tommy’s name either or the background behind our application.
Again, not great as surely all this is on record somewhere, but I guess he didn’t check his notes.
As we got to the door of the classroom he sighed.
Class one were lining up to go to choir practice, it seemed that we wouldn’t be getting to watch them work after all….
He apologised, and suggested we go watch them in their choir lesson, along with 3 other classes.
So we sat in the hall, watching them take part in some singing activities, with him making some small talk next to us.
After about 5-10 minutes of not really learning anything more than we already knew, I asked if the teacher of class 1 was here in the hall. He’d already mentioned how the class 1 teacher was actually the head of the Primary year groups, a very experienced member of staff, and actually had a masters degree in autism.
Naturally this piqued our interest again, and he explained that she was in the classroom.
Maybe we should go and meet her?
So we left the hall and headed back towards the classroom.
When we entered she was sitting in the corner working on a computer. The headmaster introduced us (well actually we introduced ourselves as he still didn’t know our names) and she spun around in her seat whilst we all stood awkwardly around her.
We gave her a brief minute or two intro about Tommy, how he had an older brother who already attended a special needs school, and what it was we were looking for in a school.
And then something strange happened.
Rather than starting to sell us on what an amazing school and class that she ran, the teacher pretty much began to roll out a whole number of reasons why Tommy wouldn’t be a good fit for their school. I’ve tried to recap briefly what we were told below. The points in blue are what I was thinking, unfortunately not what I said in reply
I’ve tried to recap briefly what she spoke about with us below. The text in blue are what I was thinking, unfortunately not what I said in reply
Their school doesn’t have a reception class, so he would be going straight into a class that was a mixture of year 1 and year 2, so it sounded like it would be very difficult for Tommy to be at their level when he starts. There’s no free play, it’s all very structured. Well Tommy, like most 4 year-olds, has never been to school, so the point is we don’t know right now how he’s going to cope in a school environment, until he’s put into one. As for the lack of free-play, surely, as an autism expert you’d know that routine and structure is something that autisistic children usually thrive on, so why should that be an issue?She stressed again and again that the class works closely to the curriculum in every activity that they do, there’s no deviation from it – Ok great? What’s your point? We’re talking about 5 year olds who haven’t been to school yet, not 16 year olds doing exams.
We have 12 children in a class and 3 teachers. The children are split into groups of 3 for each activity, with one group working by themselves, and the other 3 groups with a teacher. They then rotate through each different activity according to the schedule for the day. There would be no one-on-one assistance. – Ok, that sounds interesting. We weren’t expecting one-on-one assistance all day, Jude doesn’t even get this at his school. The only reason Tommy would need one-on-one all day is if he was in a mainstream setting where the ration is one teacher and an assistant to 30 children. We asked what would happen if he was struggling and needed a little extra help – No that’s something we’re not able to do. – Surely all 12 children in the class aren’t working at exactly the same level? Surely some need a little more help than others? Are you telling us they all get exactly the same amount of assistance from a teacher each and every single day?
If Tommy needs one-on-one assistance it would probably be better for him to start off in mainstream school, and then join us in later years when he has got more used to a school environment – I’m sorry, what? Send him to mainstream school so they can try and teach him how to sit still at a table, follow instructions, and get used to working in a classroom. Then, when it has become too much of a struggle for him to integrate with the other children, and keep up with the work they are doing, go through the whole upheaval of changing schools. He will be at a better level to start at your school then, with no consideration to the emotional experience he may have just been through over the last couple of years.
At your other son’s school they work much more on individual and life skills. We only follow the curriculum here, so he wouldn’t get any of that assistance at this school. Again, why are you focused on what our son is unable to do when you don’t even know him? We know Tommy doesn’t have exaclty the same needs as Jude, which is why we’re considering other schools
The whole time this was going on, I was wondering if it was just me that was struggling to bond with this teacher. The conversations felt so wrong I thought it must be me. Was I just imagining how awkward this experience was? I was fighting the urge to snap back at her and just up and leave, because what if my wife was getting a totally different vibe and was still really interested in the school?
So, despite within 5 minutes of being there, knowing I didn’t want her to have anything to do with Tommy’s future, I remained calm and polite and waited.
After another question we’d asked the teacher finished with “has that been helpful?”
She clearly didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary with us.
Before I had a chance to say anything my wife replied “Yes, really helpful, thanks” and was heading for the door.
The tone of her voice was clear, I wasn’t going mad, she felt the same as me
The headmaster followed swiftly behind us and caught up with us in the foyer by reception. He mumbled some more small talk, by then we’d switched off and just wanted to get out of there before we told him what we really thought.
We got back into the car and sat there shocked at what had just happened.
That’s when the anger began to kick in, and even now as I write this I can feel my pulse rising.
At what point did that teacher make a sweeping judgment on my child, despite having never met him?
Was it because we had deferred Tommy for a year, did that make him sound like he would be too challenging for her?
Was it the fact we’d mentioned he was non-verbal? Did that not fit in with the ideal structure for her class?
Or maybe was it because we spoke about his brother and the experience we’d had with his school that prompted her to suggest we would be better off there?
The tone of her voice, her body language, and her coldness towards us just didn’t make sense.
Whatever it was, something made this teacher, a so-called expert on autism, decide that Tommy wouldn’t be right for her class, and she seemed determined to make sure we knew that, without actually saying the words.
The reason we knew anything about this schools was because we were recommended to visit it by Tommy’s ‘Team Around the Child’ (professionals who have spent time over the last few years with us and Tommy getting to know him).
Instead, with a 1 minute description, she knew better than that team, and two parents who know Tommy inside out.
For the first time in our experience of our two boy’s autism I actually felt that we were being discriminated against. From reading about other people’s experiences online, maybe we’ve been lucky so far, and it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Either way, it’s certainly not something I thought I’d be made to feel by a special needs school, where a high number of the students are autistic.
I know there are plenty of ignorant people in the world, who do pre-judge and discriminate, I just never expected to find one of them as the head of primary at a special needs school. It just doesn’t make sense.
The way I look at it now, Tommy has had a lucky escape.
I would not want anyone with such limiting beliefs of what my child is capable of to have any involvement in teaching him.
So the search goes on.
We’ll find the best place for Tommy, and I know once we do he’ll thrive in that environment, and prove that teacher was so, so wrong.