“I’m scared”, Sawyer’s little voice came from the back of the car. My eyes immediately filled with tears and I did that deep breath and shaky exhale thing that you do when you’re trying really hard not to completely lose your shit. I listened as a deceitful cheery tone forced hopeful words out of my mouth, I switched off the engine and turned around with what I hoped looked like a genuine happy smile.
When I started primary school in the late 80s, there wasn’t a huge emphasis on the transition between nursery/home care and school – you turned up on day one and that was the end of that. These days preschools and primary schools work together to ensure a smooth transition for the children, and the settling in stage is absolute paramount, held in much higher regard than starting any kind of school work during those early weeks. I was around a year older when I started school than when Sawyer did, and I still remember crying fairly frequently for a few days (weeks, Mum??). I think starting school was far more confusing in those days than it is now.
Battle One came before Sawyer had even set foot inside the school, and I’m a bit ashamed to say that I hadn’t expected it. The playground. I had been so busy making sure that Sawyer would know where he would be going and what he would be doing that his sensory issues had escaped my attention almost completely. That said, most of his sensory issues became far more obvious after he started school, so maybe I didn’t fail after all – and perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. The playground was crowded, noisy, children were running around with excitement and parents stood laughing and chatting. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but when Sawyer gets overwhelmed and a meltdown is on the way, he starts to sort of… tick. He will jerk his head backwards and let out a sudden, sharp squeal. And he will do this repeatedly (along with some flapping) until whatever he feels is wrong, gets fixed. Sometimes it escalates out of your control and sometimes you can calm him down before it gets worse, but at that point he was unable to vocalise any issues he was having and so we made do as best we could. I’ll dedicate a post to meltdowns (NOT tantrums!) at some point, but for now let me say that I could tell as soon as we entered the playground that a meltdown was on the way. And so we did what we knew how. We found a corner of the playground, and we sat down on the concrete away from everyone else. We heard the whistle go, ignored it, and with our hands clamped over our ears we waited until the playground had almost emptied. By that point, thankfully, Sawyer had calmed down, and we made our way across and to the door of his new classroom.
Most primary schools seem to phase children in during the first few weeks of school. In order to help with all the new changes they tend to start with mornings only for a few days, then mornings plus lunchtime, and eventually they start to go all day. At Sawyer’s school this was the case, and as well as that, parents were permitted to enter the classroom and help settle their children for the first week of school. During the summer I had been comforted by these sensible steps to helping your child start school life as calmly and happily as possible. What I hadn’t expected was that they would, for Sawyer, turn out to have the opposite of the desired effect. Firstly, trying to enter a classroom filled with 30 children and their parents is worse than battling the the playground: A tighter space, as much noise (if not more) and heat coming from all the bodies being in one small area. I became the official problem parent on day two when I requested that Sawyer be able to bypass the playground for a few days, and enter the classroom from the side door before other children arrived. School reluctantly agreed and as I had suspected, it did the trick. In the days that followed, dropping him off went smoothly and he smiled and waved me off, knowing exactly where he was and when I would pick him up. I knew at the time that this couldn’t be a permanent solution (boy did school make that clear!) but I also knew that if Sawyer could get used to school first without the trauma of the parts he was finding so hard, it would give us a better chance of filtering those things in, and finding ways to help him cope with them. As it happens the playground coping mechanism before school still exists today, and involves us turning up at school at the last possible second, when most of the children have gone in and the parents have started to disappear.
Battle Two came in the shape of the phased sessions that had seemed such a good idea during the summer holidays. I had booked a week off work during Sawyer’s first week of school and so the timings weren’t an issue, but the changes in schedule affected him negatively almost every day. For the first morning, Sawyer went to school 9am – 12pm, but only with the younger children. On the second day he went 9am – 12pm with all the children, and on day three everyone went 9am – 1pm, which included the lunchtime session. Then there were another couple of days doing the 9am – 1pm, before eventually they started to go 9am – 3.15pm. Not only is this phasing-in stage difficult for most working parents (I’m lucky enough to have a fairly flexible job), but for children like Sawyer it has more negative effects than positive. If I had my time again I would try to sort something out so that starting school was a bit more structured from the very beginning. However school can seem quite intimidating for parents too (think about the last time you were there!), and with hindsight I wish I’d spoken up about all the concerns I was having, no matter how much of a pain in the proverbial it would have made me seem.
I would say that reception class was designed to get the children ready for school in a way they hadn’t had access to before. In reception class they focus on things like strengthening hand muscles to help with pencil control, thus setting the foundations for everything they will learn throughout the rest of school life. Reception class had its difficulties for Sawyer but on the whole he coped well with his new life, which had been my biggest concern. In terms of school work, he made slow but steady progress and I quickly realised that the educational side of school would not be our challenge. At least not for a while.
For a long time I made sure I was early to collect Sawyer from school each day, so he wouldn’t have any extra stress or unanticipated changes to his routine. One day, perhaps 3 weeks after he started in school, I stood in my usual spot in the playground waiting for the door to open. Sawyer was never at the front of the line (it took him a long time to get his belongings together and realise he needed to stand in line), and in the early years of school they don’t release children until they are sure a parent is there to receive them. On this particular day as I stood waiting, I saw Sawyer’s happy little face appear at the door behind the teacher, and I waved of course. As the teacher took each child one by one from the front of the line and passed them on to their parents, I watched as Sawyer, not yet understanding the regimen, slipped quickly behind her and ran across the playground and in to my arms. A lovely moment, he was so glad to see me. But beyond that, if I hadn’t been there? Would he have still ran? Could he be in the road by now? I crouched in a cuddle with him for a few seconds, my eyes on the doorway trying to decide if anyone had noticed his escape. They hadn’t. And so battle Three had began.
Battle Three is still an issue for me, since each and every day I feel I’m the only person to understand how unpredictable Sawyer is. Every day for me is a guilt-ridden conflict between acknowledging potential dangers, yet not wanting to react to his actions in a way that will cause him to be fearful of exploring the world. It’s an impossible dilemma and one that I can only cope with by implementing trial and error as I go along. Thinking out loud, it’s probably my biggest daily battle with life as Sawyer’s Mum, because I don’t know all the answers and I have to let him ride his bike along the path, and run ahead on the way to school, knowing that it could be dangerous, but knowing it wouldn’t be right to stop him being…. a child. The inner conflict is so overwhelming I can’t begin to touch upon it in this post. Another post for another day. We could be here a while.
Year One for Sawyer has been more easy going. For us, it has been more structured and I think it’s the reason he has taken to it so well. When he started year one I though that perhaps reception had been a waste of time, but with hindsight I realise it was probably the most important phase of his life so far. Throughout reception Sawyer couldn’t hold a pencil properly, and he couldn’t read particularly well, yet the very day he began year one, I realised reception had done exactly what it was supposed to do. Suddenly, Sawyer gripped his pencil, and he wrote his name (his name!!). Without warning, he started reading books for fun, and asking me questions about letters and numbers. That’s another thing I’ve learned about Sawyer and his autism: just when you think he’s paying no attention at all, he goes and does everything you’ve been waiting for, and all in one go.
These days he’s doing pretty well in school, and he seems to have made some friends along the way, although it’s difficult to tell since he only ever talks to anyone about Thomas the Tank. I don’t know what the rest of Sawyer’s school life will be like – there is no way to tell. There are some days he seems so different that I can’t imagine how school life will ever be normal for him, and then there are days like today, when he came running out of school hand in hand with his classmate, and the two of them excitedly told us all how they want to go to each other’s houses to play. My hope is that I’ve done enough to ensure that the adults around Sawyer know how to help him, and that with time they (along with us at home), will help the other children to understand too. I don’t know at what point his classmates should be told about autism, but it’s something I think will have to come up sooner rather than later, so that the children can make certain allowances for Sawyer in the same way most adults can and do. It scares me to write that down because it means I need to accept that there will be a next stage in Sawyer’s life, and that at a certain point autism will grown beyond my control. In many ways I will need to hand my knowledge and concerns over to children the same age as my son, hoping for dear life that they will understand and support him instead of ostracising him.
The future has never been more scary, and has never been more unclear.
I can’t bloody wait.