Thursday, December 8, 2011

School days...

As I type, Billy is lying in bed, covered in stuffed toy animals, pretending I can't see or hear him. In truth, all I can see is the remote control pointed strategically at the TV. As it is very close to the end of the year, and I have Buckley's chance of fishing him out from under assorted predators and prey, I will take a moment to talk about our schooling story.

Around this time last year, I was posting obtuse distressed messages about Billy and school. It was, I would have to say, the worst experience I have ever had.

I would take a gigantic vomiting hangover over what happened  a year ago. I would choose to carry around a bag of stinking dog poo over what happened last year. I would re-live every heartbreak I've ever had again and again over what happened last year. It sucked like nothing has ever sucked.

As a part of that process, though, we ended up choosing Distance Education for Billy. That, in itself, was worth all the metaphysical nastiness.

 In Australia, Distance Ed is homeschool with the curriculum prepared, supplied and marked by a teacher at a base school. It seemed like the best option for us because it gave me a chance to benchmark both Billy and myself. Six years of therapy and two years of self directed learning at school meant we needed specifics about where his academic skills needed to be.

Choosing a school with a self-directed learning focus is one (repeat, one) of the key mistakes I made in school choice. As his mother, I can see that Billy is 'bright'. He has intense skills in the area of literacy and memory in particular. As a trained teacher, I believed very strongly in the philosophy of self-directed learning. As a human being, I hoped they would adapt to him as they saw him in action. I believed that his teachers were seeing (as we saw) that autism + Billy = an almost intractable inability to learn unsupervised in a busy, heavily populated environment.

They did not.

In what I can only believe is good faith, they assured me he was indeed accumulating skills in the magically osmotic fashion that true, self direction allows. It was quite confronting to realise, after two years of not inexpensive schooling, he could not write more than his name independently. He had no concept of number facts to 10, never mind 100. He was still grasping a pencil in his fist. On the upside, he was reading really well (something we did constantly at home, and which was done once a week by volunteer parents at school).

Why did we not notice these things sooner, I hear you ask? I have two answers. We did, and we believed.

We asked the teacher why Billy's skills were not advancing. She had two answers. He will do it in his own time, or we have no more staff time to allocate to him.

Our alarms increased (not surprisingly) in direct proportion to his teacher's defensive and progressively more absurd avoidance tactics. She had buses to catch instantly, she had double scheduled meetings, she had gloriously detailed excuses for the lack of evidence of actual work completed at school by Billy (involving fine motor skills and mental dexterity well beyond his abundant means).

What is clear now, very very clear to me, is that schools with no specific training in special needs (generally) and autism (in particular) have no right accepting children like Billy among their enrolments. If they do, they must commit to and undertake training.

Also, it is clear that schools whose philosophies centre around genuinely laudable concepts like 'equality' and 'equity' can and will use those concepts (when pushed) to defend their lack of resourcing in relation to special needs - after all, if one child gets 'more' of anything than another, it's not fair. It's not equitable. Right?

We also learned (and this is the scariest clarion call I have) that some schools will support their staff in the misuse of legislative guidelines. It is somehow more appropriate to lay blame on the parents, and (I guess) hope they will go away, than to address the specific issues relating to a child's educational failure. It is also more important to protect the reputation of the school and the integrity of a clearly ill-equipped teacher than it is to actually resolve a situation where a child has not received an adequate educational service.

I am confident there is no parent out there that would calmly accept that their 7 year old is functionally illiterate/innumerate and doesn't require intervention. I am confident there is no autism parent out there that would accept that a clearly cognitively capable autistic child should be allowed to continue to attend school without autism specific support. I am confident there are only a few human beings out there that believe it is OK to make false claims to a government body and effectively deflect from their responsibility over the first two things in this paragraph.

At least I hope there are only a few, because otherwise other families may have to go through something similar to what we have experienced.

While I'd love to rip the school a new one (and would have, gleefully, had our Human Rights Commission complaint not resulted in a full apology to us), what I will do instead is say, 'thanks'. Through your unbelievable action, you allowed us to find Distance Education, and that has saved Billy's education.

Twelve months later, he is writing, building maths skills and still reading like a champion. He is meeting expectations for his age group. More importantly, he is accumulating those skills in a method appropriate to his abilities. We work at home, sometimes in the park or at a local cafe. He needs constant redirection and encouragement. He responds well to his schedule and work expectations being written on a whiteboard each day. He likes his tasks broken down into steps. He is very fond (as am I) of a hug at the end of each task (though this gets a little time consuming when one single spelling word is considered 'a task' and we have a list of twenty to get through).

He still has contact with his school friends. We see them once a week, individually, instead of every day in a giant pack. He learns from them, the same way he did when he was at school, just without the exhaustion that came from constantly decoding language, various walls of sound and motivations of fast moving children.

It may not be everyone's idea of educational nirvana, but Billy is growing and learning again. He is way less sick than he was last year (GI wars not withstanding). His social skills and expressive language have taken an awesome leap into smart-arse tween world. The only down side is an emerging love of Louie the Fly.

Which will take up a whole other post. Or not, if we can convince Billy that animated insects used to promote toxic chemicals are not appropriate mind-mates.

A giant pile of stuffed gazelles covering all but your remote control finger, on the other hand... clearly, they are just fine.

Excuse me while I go fish him out from under there and do some more spelling and hugging.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Damn and blast you Valerie.

You should know that there is a whole generation of Australians out here who have the Louie the Fly theme inextricably embedded in our ears.

There goes my morning...

"I'm Louie the Fly, I'm Louie the Fly, straight from rubbish tip to you. I'm spreading disease with the greatest of ease" mumble, mumble, "bad and mean and mighty unclean" mumble mumble.

(and that's from at least a 30 year old memory. If it's wrong, then I'm grateful for my old-timers)