What school mornings on the spectrum have taught me
I was sat in a stuffy office that was too hot. I felt like I was being interviewed for a crime I had not yet committed. My two younger children played at my feet, while I sat nervously.
In front of me were two teachers, one SEN (Special Educational Needs) coordinator, and the deputy head. None of the people sat before me, wanted to be here. I didn’t want to be here. I disliked like the role I had been cast in. I was considered an over protective, time wasting parent. Who had little, or no control over their disobedient child.
We were here, to discuss my eldest. She was 5 and had been at the school for just a few months. Problems were escalating faster than I could process them. I looked at the list of points we were to discuss;
Amy was an elective mute in class.
She had no friends.
When Amy did speak, it was to imaginary people.
She was behind with all her reading and writing targets.
Entire playtimes were spent tightly wedged under objects. In isolation.
The school had played their part. She had been isolated time and time again – for no apparent reason. Told to sit alone at lunch or playtime. Much of her class time was spent in the corridor, (punishment for her refusal to speak). Amy was sucking up people’s time and their resources.
Getting her to school was tough. Our morning had to begin hours in advance, so we could factor in dressing and undressing. Hiding, crying, screaming and running away.
When we finally made it to school, she would be whispering in my ear, pleading with me, to take her home. If she refused to walk through the classroom door, two members of staff, would restrain her, and drag her in. She always fought them, crying. I found that the hardest, seeing her break down. Her loss of emotional control. Amy chooses to cry in private if she can. This was so public; it was almost too hard to watch.
Helpless to help
I would stand alone, sobbing. An emotional wreck, for all the mothers and children to stare at. Unable to leave the scene, unable to stop crying. All I wanted was to run in, and scoop her into my arms.
A few times I did, the door was locked to keep me out, as much as it was to keep her in. I was shamed for being weak. ‘She’s fine when you’re gone’, ‘You need to toughen up’. ‘Not stand for it’. ‘If you allow her to behave like this, it will only get worse’.
If I stood to the side of the class door, I could still see her through a gap in the window. I would hold my breath, rooted to the spot. Anxiously watching for the moment I saw her resolve brake, and for her to stop fighting. Some days took longer than others. Eventually she would slump down in her seat defeated. I was always willing her to give in with my heart. Somehow it was easier when she did.
Mornings go on
Some mornings I managed to be stern, and would emotionally shut down. I had no idea which was more damaging to her, or me. Why was it a victory to look the other way? It felt like abandonment. I would carry it all day. I was always the first parent, waiting at the class door to collect. She was usually the last to be let out. We would hold eye contact, both knowing our position. Doing as we were told. That tiny bit of control the teacher could exert, making her wait till last.
I couldn’t wait for her to shoot through the door, into my arms. I felt forgiven. It was bitter sweet, as after that came the review of the day. She told me the things the children would whisper into her ears. ‘Your face is ugly’, ‘you’re a retard’, ‘you’re stupid cause you can’t read’. It was endless.
I couldn’t take these away, or explain why someone would say them. She had no concept of lying, so to her they must be true. I get some guilty satisfaction that those children will one day reflect. And feel remorse.
A new chapter
I decided to place her name on a waiting list, for another school. That one decision changed all our lives forever.
I felt torn for a long time, not knowing which way to turn. All around me the advice came. I felt powerless and unsure of myself. It was a gamble. To introduce more stress. New Friends. A new classroom. Her existing problems could get worse. Her anxieties increased. If she had learning difficulties, it wasn’t going to fix her.
There was a mantra chanted by other parents ‘takes a year for them to settle’. We had done our year. She hadn’t settled. The pressure of not knowing the right path was unbearable. I lay in bed at night going over and over the same fears.
So we took the chance, and moved her when the place came up at the new school. Within 2 weeks I had a different child in my arms. Amy was rising steadily academically. A new reading level every two weeks – till she was ‘normal’.
I would watch her run into class, with a smile. I was welcomed with her, to read to the children. She began to make friends; She was talking in class, being cheeky. And playtime was spent running around or coloring. Not all our problems vanished overnight. But life became sweeter again.
There was a high probability I could have left her where she was. The teacher at her old school was the SEN coordinator, who professed Amy was not on the spectrum. When Amy was diagnosed months later, she still defended her professional opinion. However, Amy could no longer be treated as a ‘naughty’ child. Because she wasn’t. She was simply stressed and unhappy.
Shortly after we left that school, the teacher was sacked. Due to an overwhelming amount of complaints. Maybe Amy and I weren’t so alone after all. Maybe the judgement I was feeling from the other parents was actually sympathy. And they didn’t know how to connect with me, as I was always so publicly upset.
Being there for each other
Now, if I see a mother break down in front of me, I would simply wrap my arms around her. Quietly stand by her side. I wouldn’t need to say anything. I wouldn’t try to fix her. She has a knowing, of what her own expectations and desires are. That is why in that moment she is broken. They are simply too much for her. She’s not there yet, on her journey.
What feels like a weakness, is just our inability to control an outcome. That’s not embarrassing or messy. Its life. All we are is human. Feeling the flow of an experience good and bad. That flow can be powerful at times, but like a wave, it does relent. At some point we get to look back, and see how far we’ve come. And those moments make it all worthwhile. We can see we’ve moved forward on our journey, and usually that’s a positive.
If you are a parent of a child with Autism, you are not alone. You can find a wonderful community of supportive parents at Autism Journey.