Monday, 1 September 2008

First school days

Two weeks ago Euan started school. It's a fraught time for any parent, but for us the usual run-of-the-mill nerves were magnified by fresh uncertainties. Not only had he been diagnosed as autistic, but the diagnosis had raised the very real prospect that he might fail altogether to cope with the school environment.
Luckily the local primary school in the area of Glasgow where we live has a good track record of handling children with autism, and the secondary school just up the road even has a specialist autism unit. So we were reassured he would be in good hands. During the school holidays Euan attended a specialist nursery where autistic children were prepared for the school routine: they were instructed to arrive every day with a school bag and a snack and encouraged to take part in different activities every day. Euan's report from this nursery suggested he was ready for school, but we knew that this was a pre-season friendly: the real challenges lay ahead.
The first of these was the uniform. Euan's school had reassured us that there would be no trouble if he refused to wear his school clothes, but we were determined that he should stand out as little as possible from the other children. It took the best part of an hour, and some wrestling moves that would have made the Undertaker blanch, to squeeze him into his uniform on the first day, but it turned out to be a watershed moment. The second day was a struggle again, but on day three Euan readily put on his uniform and then hung around by the front door, waiting impatiently to leave the house. The act of putting his uniform on seems to engage him in "school mode" and trigger a series of now-familiar routines: packing his bag, walking the 10 minutes up the road, lining up for class, waving bye-bye and shuffling happily into class.
What happens thereafter is, admittedly, a little cloudy. Euan will now and again sing a song he has learned in class, shows some fleeting interest in his homework (at least, the parts that involve singing and acting out physical routines) and says "I like the school" when asked, but meaningful conversation is impossible. He is supposed to have a specialist support worker with him in class, but somewhere along the line his paperwork has been lost in the system (a phrase I fear will echo through his childhood) and he has to make do with a general assistant. There are still question marks about his ability to understand, concentrate and follow instructions. But at the moment it's early days, and while it's still hard to know if he can manage with the discipline of school, he has already shown himself to be more adaptable than we could have believed a few months ago. The hard questions about Euan and the school system don't avail themselves of easy answers. We can only be patient.

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