Right now, in Ireland and a lot of other countries, schools are closed again. They have been closed since the Christmas holidays. Given the current “third wave” surge, and the huge number of cases in the community, this is definitely the correct thing to do. So far, so good.
And then, early in the New Year, the Minister of Education announced that Leaving Cert (final year) exam students and “special needs” students would be going back to school within a few days. Seems she hadn’t fully involved the teachers and SNAs (Special Needs Assistant) or their unions. And those unions deemed the risk to their members to be too high to go back to face-to-face schooling. Which, again, I thought was fair.
Devastated parents lobbied to get the schools opened. So, while it was still deemed unsafe for Leaving Cert Students to return, the Minister proclaimed that actually “special needs students” would be going back to school after all. But then the unions objected again. And so another u-turn ensued and it turned out the schools wouldn’t reopen after all.
I watched all of this with great interest. And read as many comments from parents as I could, both their comments on social media and when they were quoted by mainstream media. And I have a few comments to make, plus a possible solution.
First of all, I noticed that all of the comments were from parents of autistic kids. Where are the voices of the parents of other “special needs” kids? Why does it seem only the parents of autistic kids are clamouring for the schools to reopen. Maybe the other kids are doing ok. I don’t know.
I’m going to paraphrase the most common comments I read, then offer my thoughts.
“My child needs routine.” Yes, a lot of autistic people like routine in their lives. As do a lot of non-autistic people. And they can adjust to new routines. They have a routine right now. It’s the “not going to school” routine. It’s probably similar to the routine they have during the summer and other school holidays. If they don’t have a routine in their lives, maybe you could work with them on that. Waking up at roughly the same time each day. Eating at roughly the same times. Doing roughly the same activities. School is not a prerequisite for a routine.
“He needs the socialisation”. Firstly, I often question the opportunities for socialisation provided by most schools. Bullying, rejection and othering is not socialisation. And autistic kids experience these things even in “special” schools and “special units”. Saying that, they may miss their friends. It’s up to the parents to try to facilitate online options for staying in touch with friends and socialising. Our local autism charity has set up online clubs and also is pairing up kids for “virtual play dates”. Bear in mind, also, that many kids are happy to hang out on their own and don’t need the degree of socialisation as their parents think they do. Maybe they are glad of the break.
“My daughter has regressed”. We are in the middle of a very stressful and traumatic global pandemic. Do you know what causes regression in autistic people? It’s not lack of school. It’s stress, anxiety, and trauma. They may have regressed anyway even if they were still in school. Or what you may view as “regression” may be their natural way of being when not coerced into “good behaviour” by being in a school environment. That is, they may no longer be masking.
“I am just exhausted being cooped up with my child 24/7”. This. This is the crux of the matter, in my view. All the other comments above are just excuses. Given the lack of services and respite, many parents of autistic children use schools to give themselves a break. A few hours off each week. I really wish they were honest enough to admit it.
The solution I have is one that I came up with, only to find that plenty of others have suggested it. Including the main charities quoted during this saga. And that is to provide Home Tuition to any parents of “special needs” kids who request it. Home Tuition is where the government provides a grant for a teacher to come to your house to provide one-on-one tuition for children who cannot be in school for various (normally very strictly defined) reasons. Normally the parents have to source the tutor, with demand far outstripping supply. In this case, I think that SNAs and Special Education Support teachers should be redeployed. They should be provided with medical-grade PPE and perhaps be limited to two hours per day. This would be much safer for them than returning to school, while providing a break for the parents. They wouldn’t necessarily need to “teach” the kids, and certainly if the Autistic children are stressed enough as it is. Autistic people are natural autodidacts so don’t normally need “traditional” teaching. The Home Tutors could just provide some company, play games with them, have a chat, or anything else that may be of benefit. My elderly neighbour has a carer visit him every day, with full PPE, and it seems to work for him and gives his wife a break. I’m sure it would work for the parents of “special needs” kids as well. Who, at the end of the day, seem to simply need a bit of a break.