I’ve taken so long to write and publish this post that a lot has moved on since I started it. Tyger’s school and teacher are being very supportive. I’ll publish it, anyway, because much is still relevant to other children.
Tyger has been back at school for a while now.
He’s had to contend with a lot of change going from reception to year one. His school like to have small classes in reception so the four classes from reception have been condensed into three for year one, which means he largely has different classmates this year as well as a new teacher and new classroom.
The effects change can have on someone with autism shouldn’t be underestimated.
One change he has been particularly struggling with is the start of the school day and having to line up in the big playground.
In reception the kids all played in a small playground only filled with reception children or younger siblings until the teacher opened the doors ready for class, at which point the kids all grabbed their bags, said bye to their parents and went in. Now, however, he has to go to the ‘main playground’, which is full of children of all ages (almost all of them older and taller than Tyger) and has to line up with his class then march in to the classroom, still in line, when his teacher tells him.
It’s noisy. It’s busy. It’s chaotic.
Part of Tyger’s autism seems to be faceblindness. He is not good at recognising people he knows at the best of times and with so many people in one place he finds it very difficult to pick out any individual face. I ask if he’d like to speak to his friends but he can’t even see them or pick them out of the mass of people. When he does walk away with his classmates he looks back for me and can’t find me in the sea of waving parents. Even with my current multicoloured hair, he just can’t spot me when there are that many people.
He hates it and has been begging me to take him straight into his classroom.
We predicted Tyger would find this year difficult because the thing he struggled with most in reception was the times he was expected to sit ad focus on work for a prolonged period of time. Focus is not something that comes naturally to Tyger. At home he flits from one toy to another, from the TV to his laptop, from playing with Bear to talking to Wolf and I.
When he starts the school day by feeling utterly lost and overwhelmed, his subsequent ability to focus that day is clearly going to be diminished. Think of an autistic person’s ability to cope as a bucket, the more overloaded and anxious they are the more the bucket fills with water and once the bucket starts overflowing they’re no longer able to cope. Being subjected to the main playground in the mornings fills Tyger’s bucket halfway with water, leaving him with only half a bucket left for the rest of the day.
(If you’re familiar with spoon theory: the set up with the main playground is taking a lot of his spoons.)
I informed his teacher and explained he needed a reasonable adjustment put in place for the start of the school day. She agreed and from now on I have the option of taking Tyger round to another door into the classroom each morning, away from the noise and chaos of the main playground.
His teacher has stated we should only go to the alternative door on days Tyger doesn’t feel able to cope with the main playground. I have checked with Tyger every morning for the last week what he wants to do and he has chosen to wait in the main playground two our of five days. So, that seems fair enough.
But his teacher also made it clear this is a temporary measure to allow him to transition.
I have an issue with this.
Yes, I see the merit in helping him to cope with crowds if it’s possible. But I don’t see any merit in taking away a necessary (and, technically, legally required) reasonable adjustment at some arbitrary date as if there’s some sort of fly or fall exercise required past a certain month.
Yes, I’m recycling any old material I can find related to crowds because I’m ill.
He is autistic and will always be autistic. He might not ever be able to cope with the playground every morning and I think this should be acknowledged. It should not be a problem because, whilst it is helpful to be able to deal with crowds, he shouldn’t ever have to deal with a big crowd on his way to a full day of working (whether at school or in employment) if he doesn’t think he’s able. He will be just as entitled to reasonable adjustments for his autism whether he’s at primary school, secondary school or in employment and many jobs now allow working from home or have flexible hours, anyway.
I know schools and teachers are encouraged to include all children in activities regardless of SEN or ESL etc. and that’s great but they need to understand there’s a difference between making sure all children have access to all assets of education and forcing children to participate in unnecessary procedures that distress them and impact their state of mind for the entire day.
I can’t help thinking this is an example of the assumption that solving a problem autistic people are having is as simple as them acting neurotypical. As if it doesn’t matter whether Tyger is still feeling overwhelmed by the noise and intensity of the playground as long as he can act like he’s not.
Actually, suppressing all autistic behaviours and anxieties in order to pass as neurotypical is a common coping strategy for autistic people and is known as ‘masking’ (which I’ve written about before in this post about the ‘hidden’ parts of ASD and this post about the repercussions of masking long term). Whilst there are a lot of short term advantages to masking, it is exhausting and often not sustainable in the long run.
Lining up in the playground is not an essential part of Tyger’s education, which means there’s no reason to force him to participate if he doesn’t feel able. And that goes for anything else children with SEND might struggle with on a day to day basis.
I’m hopeful the school, and Tyger’s teacher in particular, will be open to further communication on the subject if necessary. The school are organising play therapy to help Tyger’s anxiety so I’m optimistic they want what’s best for him and would listen to my concerns.
It’s just frustratingly common to hear of aids and adjustments for autistic children that get whipped away as soon as they seem to be working. If it is helping then it should be left in place unless a good reason can be given for its removal. Autistic kids aren’t ‘cured’ or ‘better’ just because they appear to be coping. Often it is only the ongoing support and adjustments that allow them to cope.