JJ completed reception and years one and two at mainstream school where he coped, but didn’t thrive. He didn’t have an autism diagnosis as he didn’t display ‘typically autistic’ behaviours which could be noticed by anyone, and so he flew carefully under the radar. Looking back, he learned to read incredibly quickly and so his teachers didn’t really worry about him at all. However by year one his language development started to fall behind that of his peers, and emotionally he was still incredibly young indeed. But – he could read and write, was funny and friendly and wasn’t especially disruptive so nobody at school was concerned.
JJ displayed enormous separation anxiety from me from day one of reception and this never really got better. We all got used to coping with it and we had good weeks and bad weeks. The TAs would peel him off me, the old ‘sticking plaster’ approach, and apparently he was fine afterwards. But most days when he got home he would explode into epic meltdowns. Sometimes the meltdown happened on the way to the car. I stopped planning activities after school as JJ always seemed to need to just come home and de-compress by himself. When I did arrange play dates they inevitably ended badly with JJ becoming frustrated and hitting another child, or over-reacting to a situation and it becoming a meltdown. We lived like this for three years and I just assumed that he was ‘young for his age’ and physically exhausted. His teachers said he didn’t behave like this in school and so they couldn’t explain it. I was at a loss. I just hoped he would grow out of it and one day we would be able to meet friends at the park without any drama.
By the end of year two I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the inflexibility of the school. Especially when it came to SATs. Now, I have a moral objection to the testing of six year olds and I made it clear that I did not want JJ to participate. His class teacher had already told me JJ was going to fail (her words not mine) due to the fact his writing skills were way behind where they should be. So what was the point? “I couldn’t give a toss about that, I don’t want him tested” I said and she agreed not to put him forward for the SATs. JJ was in his own happy world most of the time and I was pretty sure he was not aware of the concept of testing. But that didn’t matter to me, it was the principal of the thing. The idea of testing a child who still needed assistance dressing and using the toilet was absolute madness to me. Besides, his teacher knew his abilities, and we didn’t need a piece of paper to prove it. I really felt very passionately about this and resolved not to let him sit his SATs.
But the head teacher, in his shiny suit and excessively-polished shoes, didn’t agree. He had targets to meet, an executive head to impress, test results to submit to the Department for Education and he didn’t like the cut of my jib. The fact that a parent should want to exercise their rights during a time of the day when HE was ultimately responsible for their child didn’t sit well with him at all. And so began a strange game between the two of us when, over the course of the month when the SATs were taking place, I did my best to take JJ out of school when I thought he was being tested. Mr Shiny Suit would then try and make sure JJ was tested the next day, if he could. But in my slightly pathetic way, I like to think that I made a small stand against the injustice by causing Shiny Suit some inconvenience. I don’t mind admitting it – I lied through my teeth to his class teacher about where JJ had been when he was absent. She knew what I was up to and we danced around each other with fake, plastered-on smiles for a whole month. I took JJ to theme parks and generally disrupted his schooling the best I could, and it felt good.
I should point out that I have the utmost respect for teachers, in case you’re reading this and thinking I’ve been unfair. JJ’s dad is a secondary school teacher and so I know all too well the challenges faced by teachers every day in an underfunded, ill-respected, outdated and poorly-paid profession. My issue is with Mr Shiny Suit, who could have worked WITH me to ensure our needs were understood and respected, but instead decided to pit himself against me.
Meanwhile, year two was becoming tricky territory for JJ. His post-school meltdowns were still in full force and sometimes he refused to even leave school at the end of the day, which felt like a punishment aimed at me for sending him in the first place. I now know that after masking all day he was emotionally spent, and upon seeing me, many feelings must have been flooding through him.
The ‘coke-bottle effect analogy’ may be an oldie, but it’s the best way to describe the way a neurodiverse child may feel after being forced to mask their true self at school all day. JJ had been figuratively ‘shaken up’ and his emotional pressure increased not not only by having to mask but also by not being in a sensory-friendly environment and by being expected to stick to routines which didn’t necessarily fit with his emotional needs and energy levels. The reward charts the teachers were reliant on to encourage and reward acceptable behaviour confused and frustrated him. The level of serious homework increased and he struggled to understand why he had to do it, after spending all day working at school. Trying to get him to do it was causing stress at home, and JJ’s dad and I both agreed homework for young children is counter-productive and pointless. We decided that we would stop pushing the issue. If he wanted to do it, we would. If he didn’t want to do it then it didn’t get done. Home was not a battleground or a school.
JJ was becoming increasingly confused by social interactions with other children which were starting to become too complicated for him. A few times he was sent to Mr Shiny Suit for minor infractions of the school rules, but each time JJ struggled to communicate to me what had happened. I could see he was being manipulated and was at the mercy of another boy (let’s call him Ben) who seemed to enjoy the reaction he would get out of JJ, and then plead innocence when a teacher became involved.
I remember one particularly unpleasant meeting with the teacher, Mrs J, and Ben’s mum. Mrs J was at her wits end with JJ and Ben and their apparently constant ‘misunderstandings’. Ben sat very nicely at the table and very eloquently complained of JJ hurting him on a climbing frame and a litany of other similar examples. All the time we were discussing this, JJ wandered around the room merrily playing with various toys and appearing not to even be aware that we were talking about him. I think he knew but wasn’t able to express himself or process and so shut it out. Ben’s mother was cross with JJ, Mrs J was cross with them both, and all I wanted to do was to run away. Couldn’t they see that JJ was innocent in this? He didn’t have the emotional sophistication or guile to do half the things Ben was describing. All this combined with the continuing separation anxiety JJ faced each morning was wearing us both out.
By the end of year two, thoroughly disappointed by the one-size-fits-all style of mainstream, and JJ constantly being misunderstood, my gut instinct said that this was entirely the wrong environment for him. I had been reading and hearing about Waldorf Steiner education and after a long campaign of persuasion on my part, JJs dad became open to the idea that alternative schooling might be the best way forward.