When someone first said the words “special needs school” I can remember exactly where I was. I was sat on a wooden chair next to our dining table. I felt like the chair had suddenly grown arms, wrapped them around me and was suffocating me. I couldn’t breathe. My whole body hurt. As the conversation went on the chair squeezed my body more and more.
We were very fortunate to be chatting to a family friend with a wealth of experience in this area. She was explaining how wonderful these schools were for children with autism. Calm environments that wouldn’t over stimulate the kiddo. No overloading language, an understanding of his communication and how to teach a child with his needs. But most importantly how the school would protect kiddo’s mental health, he wouldn’t be forced to “survive” in a neurotypical world anymore.
Now you’d think at this point I would be jumping for joy! That I would be all smiles and full of relief. But the truth is I didn’t hear anything that she said. I was frozen in time. Right back at the beginning where she said the words “special needs school”. The chair hadn’t let me go. I was a prisoner inside my own body, at the mercy of my inner voices who were crying out that surely this couldn’t be happening.
Just to put this conversation into context, it happened very soon after the health visiting team had confirmed he would be referred to the under 5s specialist team. We had no diagnosis, and I didn’t have my fabulous support groups like I do now. I was a rookie in the world of additional needs, and boy did I know it.
“Oh kiddo will be alright in mainstream” I said. “If anyone gives him any trouble he will just hit them, and then they will leave him alone”.
Our friend simply replied, “yes, but then he will be suspended, maybe even expelled”.
That sentence hit me like a bus. She was absolutely right. For I had just assumed that mainstream would take into account his needs and make allowances for him (I can actually hear many of you laugh as you read that sentence). Naive doesn’t even begin to cover my viewpoint there. Because rules are rules. They are the same for everyone.
After she left I walked into the conservatory and stared out into the garden. Kiddo wondered in after me and sat by my feet playing with his trains. I looked down at him with tears in my eyes. How could he not go to school like all his friends? At that moment I asked myself a really important question. Who was I more upset/afraid for? Him? Or me? The answer was so obviously me. No chats with mums in the school playground. No PTA meetings. No school assemblies and plays. In the blink of an eye it had all been swallowed up by autism. That night I cried myself to sleep.
The next morning I did what I always do. Researched. I rang every team of professionals I could. What were my options? I came away with a clear plan of attack, because with kiddo’s pending diagnosis there was only one option. Give it a go in mainstream and see how it goes.
Now my regular readers will know from previous blogs that we couldn’t have been luckier with our mainstream school. And at one point we thought kiddo might even thrive there. But as time went on, his progress regressed and it became clear that the environment just wasn’t right for him. He wouldn’t learn. He risked becoming isolated. It was time to visit the special needs schools.
We visited two schools near us. The first one I sat in the waiting room at and looked around. It’s quite a shock to the system the first time you go in (so I recommend visiting at least twice if you can). One thing I have learned is that you don’t view your own child as “autistic” or “disabled”. They’re just them. But when you see other children with the same diagnosis or similar needs it suddenly hits home just how much help they need. Just how much they would fit right in at a special needs school. The first school I just couldn’t make peace with. It was perfectly lovely and the staff were great. But I couldn’t visualise the kiddo there. The second school however was a different story.
We walked into reception and I immediately felt like I was in a school community. I felt relaxed. Flicking through the prospectus I noticed something. There was a PTA, there were school shows, there was a formal ball when they were older. In fact, it offered everything mainstream did. But in a language kiddo could understand, an environment he could thrive in. As we walked round I felt the tears swelling beneath my eyes. This was it. This was where he needed to go. All my fears about not having the typical mum experience were instantly dissolved.
I won’t go into the fight we had to get a place, I’ve already written that in another blog… but there was just one more thing I wanted to mention.
I had a fear that I wouldn’t meet other mums like you do in the playground. Most children attend special needs school by specially run buses you see. I chose to drop and pick kiddo up for the time being, until he settles. The other day I met a mum in reception doing the same thing. I met several other mums via the preschool group at the school and I’ve been for coffee with a lovely group of mums I met through Facebook. It may not be the traditional way, like in the playground, but there is always a way.
Yesterday I waved goodbye to kiddo as he RAN into school, the TA running after him. I walked away knowing I had made the right decision. My child was happy.
Thanks for reading,