Some years ago, I entrusted my only son, my firstborn and my friend, to another woman. Let’s call her Mrs D. She was the first teacher I had encountered as a parent, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew teachers deserved respect, and I determined I would not be a “problem parent” like my mother. I would let Mrs D get on with her job without interfering.
It was a small school – part of what attracted me to it, only three class teachers, plus classroom assistants, and a headmistress: all women, most in their late forties or fifties. Motherly, I thought, if not grandmotherly. How nice for the small boy; he never knew a grandmother. I needn’t worry about a thing.
He loved his first two weeks, appearing beside my bed dressed in his uniform at 7am every morning. He bounded out of class at the end of each day, full of what he’d been doing and the fun he’d been having. After a couple of weeks, the novelty began to wear off, but I’d prepared for that, and chivvied him along, asking him every day what was the best thing that happened. By Christmas, he was answering “lunchtime”. Then he started talking about being “bored”, and being “told off” at lot. Next I heard he’d been kept in at break time for “not completing his work”. He’s five, I thought, not fifteen. I spoke to Mrs D, but she said he had to finish his work. I shrugged it off. What did I know about class discipline? But more and more things began to niggle me: he started calling himself “useless”, and saying his work was “rubbish”. Then, at the end of his second term, he came out with “I hate school”. This was enough to break my heart, and I began to worry. Perhaps I should go into school and say something. But I didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t want my child to suffer because he had a “problem parent”. Hell, I knew how that felt.
So, distressed, I watched from the sidelines as Mrs D spent three years destroying my son’s confidence. She taught him phonics, maths, and phrases like “what’s the point?” I, the child of my own aspie mother (who never gave a second thought to marching into school and making my life hell by proxy), was torn. I didn’t know what to do.
Mrs M, whose class he moved into next, was a good teacher. A nice woman too. I liked her. The small boy liked her. But still there was something missing; he would come home saying he kept getting told off, but didn’t know why. I spoke to the SENCO about autism – her reply? “I’ve seen a lot of children with autism, and I can assure you, your son’s not one of them”. I had no answer. I’d only been recently diagnosed myself, and I didn’t want to cause a fuss. So nothing changed. Meanwhile, I watched while Mrs D began to destroy the small girl’s confidence too, and with my even smaller girl due to start the following autumn, I knew I had to do something.
After facing up to the agonies of a change I didn’t have to make, I got the smaller girl on to the reception-class intake-list for another school, and her sister (desperate to stay together) won a place on that basis. Mrs M persuaded me to leave the small boy with her; he’d grown up with his classmates, she said. They all knew his little ways (not that he’s autistic or anything). He was “doing well”. I gave in. I always was a sucker for guilt-trip tactics.
The girls flourished at the new school, and within a term it became obvious my son needed to be there too. I reconsidered Mrs M’s remark about him having grown up with his classmates… but actually he’d been through toddler group and preschool with the kids at his sisters’ school – he would have friends to welcome him. It could be done. To minimise the disruption, I wanted to leave it until the end of the academic year, but a place became available after Easter, and I had to jump. Stressful? I can’t begin to tell you!
He had seven terms at that school, and although we had little dips and bumps along the way, the two teachers who taught him gave him the confidence to aspire, to be himself. And by validating his autism, accepting him, and managing his issues without needing to apportion blame, they gave me the confidence to stick up for him. He’s now approaching the end of his first term at secondary school (where the SENCO said his autism was so obvious she didn’t need him to have a diagnosis to be on the special-needs register), and is continuing to develop his self-reliance, his responsibility, his confidence.
So, to Miss P and Mr R, I want to thank you. Between you, you rescued my son from a pit of academic despair and managed to prepare him for secondary school in only two years. It brings tears to my eyes to think of the change you worked on him. The work you gave him was harder, the challenges greater, yet in those two years, he often came home from school enthusing about what “a great day” he’d had. You inspired him to learn – which is all a parent can ask. You also took on his autism with a fearless calm. His oddness was not a problem for you, and you spoke gently to me about any issues there were. You didn’t make me feel like I was making it all up; you helped me to help him. As a result of all this, he is not only coping at secondary school, he’s doing well. And I sincerely thank you for that.