I was reminded recently of how difficult it can be for our autistic children in school so I thought I would do a mini-serial about my experience with the special educational needs system and the journey we took in getting my son diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder.
When my son started second year of infant school in the autumn of 2003, the school had recognised that my son (then 5) had learning difficulties (though not an autistic disorder) and put in place the ‘graduated approach’, a step to step way of providing increasing help. The graduated approach is part of the recommendations within the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice (England) that provides guidance to state schools, local authorities and others in identifying, assessing and providing help for children with special educational needs. It goes like this:-
The Graduated approach
School Action - may involve further assessment, additional or different forms of teaching and possibly additional support.
School Action Plus – if a child does not make progress on School Action then they are put on School Action Plus – at this stage the school seeks external advice from either the Local Education Authority, health or other professionals.
Statement of Special Educational Needs – if a child’s needs are not met through School Action and School Action Plus the Local Education Authority may do a statutory assessment and from that put in place a Statement of Special Educational Needs which sets out the child’s needs and the special educational provision required.
My son was placed on school action which meant that he received some small group teaching every week to help him with his literacy and numeracy skills. As a result of this, we also had twice-yearly IEPs (Individual Education Plans) which set out his targets, actions to be taken by the school and outcomes. Initially, we were OK with this; the school appeared to be responding to his academic difficulties and involving us in meetings to discuss his progress.
However, my son made little progress and by the end of 2004 he was moved on to school action plus, which meant that the school sought advice from a specialist teacher from the Local Educational Authority who came and assessed him. By 2005, his support increased to 5 hours of small group teaching a week and occasional 1-1 work with this specialist teacher. As a result he started to make some improvement academically but it still left many issues unexplained: clumsiness, extreme tantrums, hyperactivity, resistant to change and social difficulties.
Masking his autism in school
We tried to raise these issues but it was difficult to get the teachers to listen to us properly. Meetings mostly focused on academic progress which meant that little attention was given to non-academic issues. I think this was partly because there was a mismatch between what the school saw and what we saw in our son. Though the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) recognised my son’s clumsiness and disorganisation she also saw my son as a polite and well-behaved boy who interacted appropriately with his peers.
Polite, well-behaved, interacts appropriately??? We did not recognise this as our son; we saw our boy having extreme tantrums, was hyperactive and dominated and irritated others (amongst other things). It was incredibly frustrating; the SENCO could offer no suggestions for this pattern of behaviour except to suggest that his clumsiness may indicate dyspraxia, though she sought no further advice on this. Of course, we now know he was masking his autistic disorder at school but at the time none of us knew this, not even the specialist teacher!
On top of this, we also had issues with homework. The school demanded a lot of its pupils and expected all children to do their homework. However, doing school work at home was very difficult for my son; he often refused to do it, hide it or destroy it. At the time we assumed it was because of his learning difficulties though we now realise that it was also because he is autistic. (Homework is a common problem for autistic children who tend to compartmentalise their lives and see school and home as distinct areas.) Anyhow, we felt it inappropriate to push him and disengage him further from learning, particularly as he was so young. We tried to discuss our problems with the school but they would not listen and instead accused us of having “a poor attitude to education”.
I had had enough. These meetings had now started to become hostile and a waste of time. It was clear that the school was not interested in working with us or seeking further advice.
In my next blog I will look at our journey towards a diagnosis.
You may also be interested to read:
Part 4 – Getting a diagnosis
Part 3 – “I’m dumb” – the issue of self-esteem
Part 2 – on the road to a diagnosis
2003 – first school year – difficulties emerge