Educating Alex

For the second time in two years we find ourselves at the end of February half term, poised and ready to take on a new type of schooling tomorrow morning. The first time was when we’d made the move out of mainstream, hopeful that an online version of ‘normal’ school would be enough to help Alex manage the varying challenges the education system was providing. At first it was going pretty well; no crowds, no noise, no navigating your way around an environment that was nothing short of sensory hell for my autistic eleven year old – however it soon became obvious that school is school is school, however you access it, and that the problem, in fact, was school.

I thought we still might be OK. Online school was flexible enough to allow Alex to retake a year of Spanish while skipping ahead a year in English, but in practice it just wasn’t working. Communication between school and parents was virtually zero, and it wasn’t until I queried the marks in Alex’s end of term report that I was told they’d hardly handed any homework in. Alex is an incredibly intelligent person – far more so than I am – but they are extremely literal and rigid in their thinking, and I (eventually) worked out they were really struggling to access the work that was being set. At school every day, Alex has to do at least twice as much work as their non-autistic classmate, because before they can even start working on something they first have to decipher the instructions they’ve been given into something that makes sense to them, and has enough information for them to begin working on the task. As autistics, Alex and I often don’t interpret things in quite the way someone else might be expecting, and it can be incredibly nerve-wracking approaching a task with no real idea whether you’re going to do it right or not, despite trying your absolute best. Imagine this happening in every lesson, every day, every week, for the whole school year. Imagine how exhausted and anxious Alex might be when they even *think* about school.

Anyway, back to the present moment and this time as we nervously anticipate what tomorrow might bring, it’s ME who’s feeling all the anxiety, because tomorrow Alex starts at the School of Mum and Dad (but mainly mum).

I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ve got to re-ignite Alex’s love of learning, which has gradually been worn away by years of inaccessible lessons. I’ve got to build back their confidence in themselves, which – particularly in maths – has ebbed away to almost nothing. I’ve got to find out how they like to learn, and help them harness that so they can achieve what they want to achieve.

Most of all, I have realised, I haven’t got to teach them anything. My job is to support them while they do the learning. It’s to help them meet a task that feels impossible and view it as a challenge to relish rather than a mountain to climb. It’s to show them that it *is* possible to be autistic and still pass the same exams that non-autistics take. It’s to demonstrate every day that their worth as a student, and as a person is not determined by how quickly they can multiply something in their head. It’s to instill in them that because their brain works differently to most people’s, and they are at a disadvantage in our current education system, it is their absolute right to insist on accommodations that will let them achieve their potential, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. That it doesn’t matter how clever you are if the task is inaccessible to you.

And I probably need to write some kind of school song. Priorities, you know?

I think I’m going to learn a lot from this. I’m hoping to document it all so I can keep track of our progress, and because it helps me to think through stuff. I think there are going to be funny stories to tell, as well as interesting discoveries and useful insights into Alex’s autistic teenage brain. I’ve spoken to Alex about the idea of us writing a book together about this journey, which could hopefully help other autistic children, and their parents and teachers. Maybe one day this blog post will form the introduction..!

Thank you to the tons of home-edders who have responded to my panicked tweet earlier today and reassured me that it’s all going to be ok. It seems like a really lovely community of people with really interesting ideas about education, and I’m really excited to be a part of it. Time to put my big girl pants on and dive in.