I’ll never forget dropping my son off for his first day of school. He’d just been diagnosed with high-functioning autism and we were brand new to the town. I looked at the school grounds – namely at the lack of fences around the play area – and broke down in tears. I sat in the car with my kids, crying surreptitiously, and tried to gather strength.
Although Charley’s diagnosis was new, his quirks were well known to me. I knew that he was a wanderer. I would have rather seen a kindergarten “cage” than that fenceless schoolyard. I also knew that groups of children always made him really unpredictable, that people touching him unexpectedly could result in punches, kicks or bites. Even loud noises made him bolt.
Yeah, I knew school was going to be hard.
It’s now two years later and Charley is in Grade 1. He’s fully integrated in his class and manages to do most activities with his classmates, albeit in a modified way. He’s learned and grown in many amazing ways. And yet, school has been hard. The public system is not a perfect fit for his unique little brain. He’s gifted in so many ways: He notices everything. He remembers everything. He recites whole books from memory. But does he care to learn the names of his classmates? No way.
When a relative visited us recently, she asked him about his favourite part of school. He said, “Nothing.”
Undaunted, she pressed him. “Surely you like gym?”
“How about recess?”
She sighed. “Charley, there must be one thing you like at school.”
He thought for a moment, and said, “I like going to the office. It’s quiet. There are grown-ups. And they have Lego there.” Classic Charley.
He’s had the most wonderful teachers in his three years of school. I’ve been encouraged to help come up with strategies for enabling success and dealt with the rough weeks side-by-side with his team. I’ve worked with his teachers developing his IEPs and discussing therapies needed. We’ve been really fortunate.
Yet I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t think about home-schooling him on a regular basis. I look at the potential of that little brain and wonder what he could learn in a calmer, more familiar environment. I wonder if I am missing a great opportunity to help him flourish. “Who might he be if given the right tools?” I wonder.
But every single teacher, therapist and administrator we’ve encountered has worked to convince me that the primary goal here is to give Charley the social tools needed to succeed in the future. How far can a brain take you if you can’t negotiate with your peers? Or even have a basic conversation? Talking to Charley at this point consists of him presenting a mini-lecture on whatever he’s currently obsessed with: trains, ocean zones or narwhals.
Charley’s brother, Sam, started JK this year. He’s what we call “neuro-typical.” He strutted into school the first day, knew everyone’s name by the end of week one and reports to me daily on his classmates’ adventures. I seesaw between sadness and thankfulness, watching Sam take on the world so effortlessly. His struggles will be few compared to his big brother’s.
While Sam spends the weekend counting down the hours until school starts up again, Charley plots ways to avoid it. “I think my stomach hurts.” “I’m pretty sure I have a fever.” “School is boring compared to home.” With forced cheerleader spirit and occasional bribery, I get him out the door on Monday morning.
Most days go pretty well. He really loves his teacher. He knows all the women in the front office and where they keep their stickers. The janitor is his friend. Every single kid in the school knows his name, even if he doesn’t know theirs.
One day I picked him up and asked him how his day was. He looked up at me and smiled. “Mommy,” he said, “School would be perfect if there were no other children here.”
First published in Education Canada, March 2013