Regression, special school and a glass door

I wrote this post shortly before Christmas, published it, then realised I wanted to edit a couple of things. I then got caught up in a horrendous sickness bug and various other chaotic events, with the result that I forgot to re-publish it. So apologies if you have already read this; an  update will follow shortly, as much has changed since I wrote this:

Spinning on the spot, flicking fingers in front of eyes, hands covering ears, unusual eye and head movements. These were some of the autistic ‘behaviours’ my son did not display. Until recently. Now he is doing all of this, plus more of the stuff that he was already doing, avoiding eye contact, staring into space, getting distracted from the task in hand.

Worryingly, he is also getting confused about about language. Leo go and get your shoes resulted in him setting off purposefully, only to do a full circuit of the kitchen and living room, returning empty handed. When I asked him again he simply wandered off, as if he didn’t understand. I went to show him what I meant: your shoes Leo, see, by the door, we found them. He didn’t object to any of this, but it was as if he was not connecting any of it up either. Now, I know that he has the capacity to understand, I know that. Just as I know that he can make eye contact when he is happy and relaxed, not because he is being praised or rewarded, but because he wants to.

These new developments tell me something is wrong, but it is not the behaviours themselves. He can’t speak but he is sending me little messages, tellinme something is too much for me, I can’t cope. He puts his hands over his ears just before he falls asleep, when everything is quiet. When he does this he gives me a look as if to say help me. It is so clear I can almost hear him say it.

I have informed all the professionals involved with Leo about this new development. I don’t know if I expected help or reassurance, but I didn’t get any. This is the pattern of autism was the message, delivered with a head tilted in sympathy and a slightly sad look. They have seen so many autistic kids it is nothing new  or alarming to hear a mother say that autistic behaviours have increased. This is just what autistic kids do. Well, that is not enough for me. I feel compelled to get to the bottom of it, to find out why he is in distress.

Christmas? I doubt it. Leo is very ‘ho hum’ about big changes. I have been given an advice pack about how to handle Christmas with an autistic kid, and I am sure a lot of it is highly relevant to a lot of kids, but Leo has problems with almost none of the issues mentioned. He is neither surprised or upset by big changes going on around him, whether they involve a new house, a new room, or a bit of tinsel.

Pre-school? Hmmm…. this may have something to do with it. If his home-school journal is to be believed his sociability levels at pre-school are through the roof. He has been laughing with other children, playing with the same toy, taking a turn without crying, and letting another child cuddle him. Parents of autistic kids will know how huge those things are. I know if I have been to a party or even a social occasion of any sort I have to collapse when I go home, Even if I have enjoyed myself I certainly don’t want to talk to anyone else for a while. Maybe pre-school is like a party every day. Too much! Too too much!!

He also has ‘worktime’ at pre-school. This is where he matches shapes, colours, hammers pegs, sorts teddies. threads beads, and generally follows instructions, sitting nicely with hands down. By ‘hands down’ I do not mean he is prevented from flapping his hands, but that he should not grab the items before the teacher has presented them on the table and told him what she wants him to do. I have mixed feelings about this, but it is for tiny amounts of time so I am thinking it is not going to be a significantly distressing to cause the kind of changes I am seeing. The crucial thing is that the ladies who teach him will let him stop his work if he is having a difficult day and they enjoy his company, and even appreciate it when he swaps round the cards on their schedules in an attempt to manipulate the session and avoid activities he would rather not do. There is some expectation of compliance but it does not take over the session, and Leo and I both appreciate that. However, is worktime becoming too much for him? Or, more likely, is he bored with it?

Is he having too much screen time? It is easy to let this creep up. His angry birds obsession makes him laugh, and his laughter makes me laugh, and I can sometimes convince myself it this means it is good for him! In fact though I think screen time has actually been decreasing. He has been siging ‘stop’ when the TV is on and seems to be easily overwhelmed by it.

Leo now has a PECS (PIcture Exchange Communication System) book. Could this be causing stress? It contains pictures and photos of things he can ask for -food, games, actvities. It is fairly simple. The Speech Therapist has introduced a ‘sentence strip’ and has placed an ‘I want’ card on the left hand side. Instead of simply bringing me a picture Leo has to place the picture card on the strip next to the ‘I want’ card. He then has to remove the whole strip and pass it to me and I read it. We sign the sentence at the same time. It is of course much easier to just give me the card and he has let me know very loudly that he does not agree with the new regime (I am not overly fond of it myself but I do understand why we need to persist). However, I think it is unlikely this is the sole cause of his recent regression.

My number one suspect is sensory issues. They are deserving of a whole post really, but for now it is enough to say that we learn through our senses and if they are jumbled, then learning and relating to others is bound to be affected. And it is the seven senses rather than five. Vestibular and Propriocetion (sorry eight, there is Interoception as well) are the forgotten senses. I think they are overdue an awareness campaign of some sort. Look them up, it is fascinating stuff! It is highly likely that his brain is dealing with more input, than a non-autistic brain, he has more information coming than most people. And then sometimes not enough, or not enough that is useful. Either way, maybe it has reached some kind of tipping point, where he can no longer cope. How can he sift through all the input without getting lost and retreating to something he can rely on? Something he creates himself, something he can control, something he can make sense of. This may be the origin of the noises that he makes as well as his recent behaviour.  I don’t know. These are guesses.

In any case, our next step is a Sensory Integration Assessment. Sensory issues are central to autism and it is pretty outrageous that the NHS almost ignores them. I read a description that trying to help a child without addressing sensory issues is like watering the leaves of a tree but not the roots. It is possible to see an Occupational Therapist if your child has severe problems, for instance if they cannot feed themselves or maybe if they are self-harming, These do not apply to Leo. So yes, we have to pay for it.

A visit to the local special school coincided perfectly with Leo’s regression or retreat, or whatever it is. In September Leo will leave pre-school where he goes for 2 afternoons a week and go into a Nursery class of some sort. We need to apply for a ‘statement’ which sets out what support needs to be in place for Leo. It is legally binding. You have to name which school you want your child to go to, so we are looking at all the options.

I went to the special school expecting to think he is not going here. And by and large that is indeed what I thought. The wonderful lady who showed me round spoke of an individual programme that could be created for my child. Wow I thought. Maybe I will change my mind. Every morning most of the children will do a sensory circuit in the gym, sliding, crashing, spinning, whatever is needed  to either wake them up or calm them down and get them ready for learning. Not a bad idea for any child. One class had just returned from horse-riding, the classes do either swimming or riding once a week. A specialist music teacher works with every class. Again, wow.

The Nursery is where Leo would go. It is in a spearate building, adjoining a mainstream nursery, with a glass door dividing the two. The idea is the children will have access to specialist input, but will also have the chance to mix with regular children (oh dear, that is a terrible description, I wil call them mainstreamers). There is a beautiful large play area including some woodland. What could be more perfect?

Well. There was something of a disconnect between what I was told by my guide and what I was seeing in front of me. The teachers seemed tired and disengaged, a couple of them snapped impatiently at the children. The teaching assistants chatted to each other and looked around the room as if bored. It is near the end of term and I am sure these things can be observed in mainstream schools too, so I am not making any definitive judgement about the school. I somehow expected staff in a special school to be more engaged, more gentle, more patient, but they were not. The children in the Nursery were sitting in their seats having what looked like a fairly formal lesson. The all have PECS books just like Leo. One girl had an ipad. None of them appeared to be able to talk. A little boy got out of his seat and was told to sit down. He started flapping his hands and was told to find a picture in his book to say what the matter was. He flipped through the book and gave up. Nobody helped him. Another child was told not to squirm in her seat. She started shouting and was told to ssshhh please. With one exception I did not like the way the teachers spoke to the children. I am well aware that these things may be observed in a mainstream classroom too, and I was not appalled, but I was not impressed either.

Through the glass door, in the mainstream part of the Nursery the children were running around, shouting, and playing. They were noisy and crazy and none of them were told to ssshhh. Again, I am aware I was just seeing a snapshot of the day; the mainstream children may have been on a different timetable, I am sure they have to sit nicely at some point during the day too, but during my visit this is what I observed. I thought about Leo doing his worktime at pre-school while the other children played. And I wondered: do we expect more compliance from children with special needs. In our anxiety to help them fit in, to help them learn, do we apply standards that we do not apply to children who are not having problems? If I was having a really dark day I might ask if we prepare children with special needs, not for life but for some form of institutionalisation. I don’t know the answer. I am not saying that they should be allowed free rein because they have special needs. In fact, I saw three older children outside at lunch time in the playground, with no shoes or socks on.  I would have thought that is not something they should be allowed to decide for themselves, and that footwear must be worn outside. But all of this is why I need to go back, to make sure that I saw what I thought I saw.

There is another, bigger problem and that I realised indirectly. My guide explained that all the children are taught together until year 3 (age 7-8) when they are split into two groups.  She then showed me the Severe Learning Difficulties classroom and the Moderate Learning Difficulties classroom. And that is when I realised that is it. Severe or Moderate. The classroom for children who are autistic and bright but with huge sensory issues does not exist. If Leo were to stay in the school the best he could hope for is to be top of Moderate Learning Difficulties Class. Does there come a point where the glass door no longer opens for children like Leo?

Strange as it may sound, after all that, I have not ruled it out. These last few weeks Leo looks more and more like the children at special school than the children I see coming out of mainstream nursery. I feel more comfortable talking to other autism parents because they understand. Maybe it is the same for Leo, and he will feel more at home in a place where people understand him. I try to imagine where I would rather be if I were Leo. Certainly a class of six children rather than 30 would be easier for him to deal with. At mainstream, the quality of the 1:1 support is crucial. Your child’s statement may say that they need 1:1 support, but it is the school’s decision about who that person should be. My non-speaking son would have to rely on that person absolutely for support. It is quite a scary thought.

The most common attitude among autism parents (not all of course) seems to be: Try mainstream, then special if it doesn’t work out. I am wondering if it can be done the other way round. Have a year in special school, and get that specialist input, and hope that it gives him an extra chance to develop to the point where he is more able to cope in mainstream. There may be a reason why this is not a common approach, however. The danger for me is that the special school staff would only expect a certain amount of development, and may not even notice a child for whom the setting is no longer appropriate.

There are other options: an autism unit attached to a mainstream school, a bit like the Nursery in the special school. It sounds like the ideal solution, but places are limited, and like anywhere, there is no guarantee of quality. The nearest lower school with an autism unit  is a long way from us (30-40 minutes drive) and there are only 6 places for the whole school. The special school also offer something that is tempting in theory at least. Your child can be taught in a mainstream school but by specialist staff. Your child wears the uniform of the mainstream school and in most cases considers themselves to be a pupil of that school. However, they are in fact a pupil of the special school, even though they are not physically present. If I could request this then I probably would, but I can’t. The way it works is that your child has to attend the special school for a time, and then be chosen as suitable.

This brings me to the final option. Home education (gulp). I see why people do it, I really do. If I felt there was no place for my child then I would do it too. I know there is no perfect school for Leo, or indeed for any child. I don’t expect to find one. But I do see why education causes such anxiety amongst special needs parents. For some (like me) home education is the last resort. I can also see why for some it might actually be the first choice.

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