How special school has worked wonders for my autistic daughters
Every weekday morning at 8.30, the school minibus arrives and I shout “car!” My two severely autistic daughters run to the front door eager to get their coats on. Neither of them can talk but they certainly understand that word “car” and they are always happy to be going off to school.
They attend a special school where children with all different disabilities are taught according to their needs. There they have continuous, on-site access to a speech and language therapy (SALT) team, an occupational therapy (OT) team, autism specialists and a whole staff of teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) who are kept constantly up to date with all the latest training in special needs teaching.
I would never wish to swap this for a place at the local mainstream school where there are no specialists and with the best will in the world, the teachers cannot hope to have the same level of training. They might at best be offered “one-to-one” support from a TA whose job, in reality, would be to keep them out of everyone else’s way.
It’s not only the children who have learned a lot from our special school. They have a comprehensive programme of parent training with seminars on a wide range of topics (from sleep to signing), behaviour management workshops and informal gatherings where we can raise any concerns. A specialist school nurse can give advice and deal with minor health problems, avoiding traumatic GP visits. They work with a communication technology team who have provided computer tablets for communication and trained the girls and us to use them.
The right fit
In a mainstream setting, the roles would be reversed and instead of learning so much from the school, I would be the one who would have to teach the school about my children’s needs, as I’ve seen so many parents do. A professional from the local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) team recently told me that a surprising number of families don’t have in place the many systems we rely on at home to make our lives run more smoothly. She added that the families had not been informed about these because their children were in mainstream schools.
We live in a supportive community where everyone knows our girls, but even so I know there would be understandable resentment from other parents if my children appeared in their child’s classroom. Of course, I think first of my children’s needs, but I can’t just ignore the right of all those other children to learn. I’ve seen some cases where the disruption caused by an autistic child in a mainstream classroom has been spectacular. Being in a place where no-one really knows how to manage that behaviour inevitably means it will get worse. At our special school we can relax because all the parents are in the same boat; it’s an understanding community of people who, like us, have “seen it all”.
The curriculum at a mainstream school would be largely irrelevant to my girls. At their school, they focus on communication and life skills as well as enjoying activities such as swimming, horse riding and music, which they love.
But the most important consideration is that they are happy. They love their school and feel at home there. I don’t want to be one of those parents facing a daily battle to drag a miserable, unwilling child to a school where they feel alienated and may be bullied.
I know from hard experience how difficult it is to face the fact that your child may have to go to a special school. It is an enormous mental and emotional hurdle to overcome. But once we were over that hurdle, we haven’t looked back. We’ve seen the many benefits and have never regretted our choice.