It pops out unplanned and unheralded, the big question, towards the end of a family dinner. For once our eight-year-old son and his 10-year-old sister have neither traded slights, digs or obscene gestures, nor squabbled over dessert portions, and maybe it’s the unfamiliar calm that prompts my partner to ask the boy.
“How do you think you’d feel about changing schools next year?”
Behind a mask of bolognese and chocolate sauce, his face concocts a frown.
One of the many things I didn’t know about parenthood before stumbling into it is just how many difficult decisions it involves. The one we’re facing now looks a doozy.
Our son is nearing the end of grade two and it’s becoming plain that our little local government school, just a three minute walk up the road, is struggling to meet his needs. He has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder without intellectual disability, though working memory and processing skills are stamped “borderline”. Like many children up and down the country, he has learning and behavioural issues which, while not severe enough to trigger extra funding, can make bewildering and treacherous terrain of the classroom and schoolyard.
Our son is nearing the end of grade two and it’s becoming plain that our little local government school, just a three minute walk up the road, is struggling to meet his needs.
Sending him to the school seemed a no-brainer when he started out. His big sister was thriving in its cosy community, he already knew a bunch of kids from the local area, plus there was the deal-sealer of that three minute walk.
Since then his every teacher has done their best to support him, but without an aid in the classroom, and with 25 or so other kids, including a few others with developmental delays, each has been regularly reduced to sitting him on his own, so that he might not get distracted or, driven by disengagement and a clowning default, become a distraction.
We’ve come to dread the phone call from the school or ambush from the teacher at pick-up time, just to let us know that today there has been some little problem, again. Usually around social cues being misconstrued, wires crossed, occasionally getting physical, lines between perpetrator and victim blurred.
After school, he’s often sad and often angry, and rarely able to offer a coherent or consistent account of why.
We’ve come to dread the phone call from the school or ambush from the teacher at pick-up time, just to let us know that today there has been some little problem, again.
Three years into his school career, it feels we’re in danger of settling into a fixed pattern. Two steps backwards for every academic and social advance, while he gets more and more used to life on the sidelines, and to seeing every day at school as another to be endured, instead of enjoyed.
And so lately we’ve started to look around.
What we’ve found are other small, resource-stretched government schools with principals and teaching staff of varying levels of charisma and vitality but universally excellent intentions, in charge of growing numbers of kids on the spectrum, many of whom need and deserve more. Some of those children will harness the support that’s available and develop their own strategies to get by, even eventually to flourish. Others never will.
And then there’s the local Christian school. The facilities in this place are resplendent, pristine, state of the art. There is a teacher’s aid in every classroom, coiled to spring to the assistance of every child like ours. A freshly painted space and incentivised staff member to nurture every interest, just being there among such gleaming gear surely a boost to the most brittle self-esteem.
And all this could be his if we just cough up a couple of thousand dollars a term and let slide a principle or two.
And then there’s the local Christian school. The facilities in this place are resplendent, pristine, state of the art.
Like the belief I’ve held all my life that all things might not be equal, but access to decent schooling should be. Five or six thousand over a school year isn’t much compared to some of the glittering academies that illuminate our academic marketplace, but it’s enough to rig a game that ought never be rigged. I know we’re lucky to be able to afford to pay any fees at all. I just never imagined we’d be considering it.
So this is where term four of his grade two finds us. Dithering over what’s best for our youngest child. Stick or twist. Stick to what we believe in, or, for the sake of his future, open up to what we don’t.
“What is it you’re scared of?” my partner asks our son at the dinner table.
The bolognese and chocolate frown morphs into a pensive pout.
“Being at a new place. Not seeing my friends.”
It’s true. The disability Royal Commission is uncovering some shocking stories about bullying of vulnerable children within our mainstream schools, but it’s no picnic being the new kid, either.
Maybe we wait one more year, what’s the worst that could happen?
I reach a hand across the table, and give the boy’s a squeeze.
“It’s just something we’re thinking about,” I tell him. “There’s no need to be worried.”
His mother shoots me a look that asks just who I’m trying to convince.
You can watch the Diagnosing Autism episode of Insight now on SBS On Demand.