Monday 28 June 2010

Starting School

The school holidays have started. When they finish in seven weeks’ time, Adam will go to school for the first time. And slightly unexpectedly, he’ll be going to the local primary school rather than a special needs institution. It’s a decision we haven’t taken lightly, but it feels like the best choice we could make at this time.
Adam was diagnosed with autism in April. It was much easier to take in than Euan’s diagnosis, because Magteld and I could spot the early signs and health professionals were less guarded when they knew we already had one autistic child. There was a broad informal consensus that he would have a diagnosis so that when it came, it was a relief rather than a shock.
The most pressing issue was where to send him to school. Our first instinct was that he should go to a special school, like Euan’s, where the smaller class sizes would be less intimidating. One of Adam’s main difficulties is extreme reticence and selective mutism when faced with unfamiliar people or situations, and we reasoned that he was more likely to settle into a school routine if he was in a small group where he could get plenty of one-to-one attention. We had seen Euan come on in leaps and bounds since he moved to a special school, where his curriculum is tailored to take account of his learning difficulties.
We also had the experience of Euan’s first year at mainstream school. Although he eventually settled well into the class and made good progress in some aspects of learning, such as reading and writing, it was plain to see that he was in the wrong place. He was quickly distracted, and when the noise or activity around him got too much he became disruptive and would have to be taken out of class. Things improved when he was allocated a classroom assistant, but it was only through copious support from the staff, particularly his extremely patient class teacher, that he made any headway at all. It would have been unfair both on Euan and the school to have kept him there any longer.
However, when it came to selecting a school for Adam, other factors came into play. In the first place, there was no place available at the school Euan attended. This, we were told, was because the application could only be made once he had been formally diagnosed. It took well over a year for Adam’s diagnosis to be completed, and by the time it came through Euan’s school was full. The alternative was a different special school, three miles from home in the opposite direction and six miles from Euan’s school. And when Magteld went to see it, she saw it was far from an ideal option. I won’t go into the exact issues here, but the benefits were outweighed by the practical problems.
That left one realistic alternative. Magteld hastily arranged a meeting with the head teacher of our local primary school to see if Adam could be accommodated there. Though the experience of Euan had been taxing, we were reassured by the efforts the school made towards him. Moreover, while Euan has moderate learning difficulties, Adam has shown every sign that he is capable of following a mainstream curriculum in the right circumstances. The main concern is that he won’t have a classroom assistant because of a lack of resources, but the school’s attitude was positive and encouraging. On that basis, we decided the mainstream school was the best option.
We’re acutely aware that for all our careful preparations, it can still go wrong. The ongoing reorganization of Glasgow’s schools means Adam could be in a class of 30 children. If he struggles to settle he could easily get lost in the maelstrom. But on the positive side, we’ve seen that once he gets into his stride and sheds his inhibitions he can thrive. He’s keen to learn, able to concentrate and willing to socialize in spite of his poor communication skills. And the entire episode has taught us the value of taking an active role in Adam’s care. We had to recognize that the system was offering him a poor choice, then go out and find a better one.
It’s difficult as a parent to go against the advice of experts. It’s natural to worry that you’re succumbing to delusions about your child’s capabilities, especially with a condition like autism that can be hard to understand or analyse rationally. But I’m comfortable with the thought that we’ve thought long and hard, and informed ourselves as well as we could, before deciding where to send Adam to school. Whether it’s the right decision is something we’ll find out in due course.