Mainstream teachers just don’t appreciate my child’s needs
As a baby, Zak didn’t reach the usual milestones that other children did and, as he got older, his speech was terribly delayed and he couldn’t pronounce words clearly. He would point instead of trying to talk, and when he did speak, it was in his own language. He also had problems with his fine motor skills and was not able to hold a spoon or fork, or make a pinching motion with his thumb and forefinger. Zak suffers with severe spatial awareness problems, scotopic sensitivity, which causes reading problems, and has a specific learning disorder.
We found out the hard way that, unless you as parents are prepared to push and battle for your child, there are barriers at every corner. In our case, these ranged from head teachers being incredibly unhelpful, to a misdiagnosis from a community paediatrician.
It was obvious to us that Zak’s behaviour was very odd and a health worker recommended that we contact Autism Suffolk. They pointed us in the right direction towards obtaining a diagnosis through a recognised child psychologist specialising in autism.
After diagnosis, we were asked to attend the Help Programme, which was an invaluable source of information. Thankfully, the charity Contact A Family also got involved and provided us with a family worker, who continues to work along side our family today.
Zak attends a mainstream school but spends most of his time in the SEN section, where he does extremely well. He is an intelligent boy who is keen to learn, and in this setting his work has flourished. He feels safe and understood in the SEN building, as teachers and staff are trained to look after such vulnerable children.
However, when Zak is in the mainstream section of school, he is bullied and misunderstood. He struggles in class and the teachers have no understanding whatsoever of what he is going through, as he tries to listen without making eye contact and siphon out all the other sounds around him. He experiences a lot of stress and gets very anxious about other children around him.
On one occasion, the class ganged up on him, saying that he was rude in the way he spoke to his helper. Zak isn’t rude, though, but he does speak his mind without thinking about what impact he might have on others. He doesn’t realise when he has upset someone as he cannot “read” expressions on faces. He doesn’t know any better; he is autistic, and this is one of the very prominent features of autism. The mainstream staff do not understand this behaviour and he often ends up with reprimands and even detentions.
I have seen the Headmistress on a few occasions and have found her to be not at all helpful. In fact, her approach is quite antagonistic and unbending. I asked her to be more astute in her care of vulnerable students, to which I was told that if my son didn’t feel the school was a safe place, there were plenty of other schools in the area. How is this attitude and approach going to help our special children?
Once, after a severe bout of bullying, it was suggested that Zak should have a few days off school for stress. Zak, however, wanted to continue going to school to learn. “Why wasn’t the bully sent home?”, he asked.
Zak is a talented swimmer. He was taught by a coach who understands autistic children and he now swims for his county in the able-bodied section. It just goes to show that anything is possible with the right guidance, patience and expertise from teachers who really understand our children.
Amanda Strowger was featured in Contact a Family’s report Our family, our future.
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.