In the 6-week break before Sawyer was due to start reception class, I was anxious about how he would cope and whether he would be able to fit in with his peers. Uniform and books started to arrive, along with the stark realisation that I was about to relinquish some of my responsibilities and hand my son over to someone else for several hours each day. Although Sawyer had been in preschool while I worked part time, I had been on maternity leave with his little sister for almost a year and so he and I had spent a lot of time together. I would miss him.
Although I knew that Sawyer wouldn’t be expected to recite times tables from day one, I couldn’t help but worry about how he would manage academically at school. As a summer-born boy he would already be one of the youngest in his class, and on top of that he had a significant speech delay caused (probably) by his acute inability to sit still or focus. Children younger than Sawyer at nursery had been recognising their own names and some had even made good attempts at writing them down. Sawyer couldn’t tell you what his name was. I would often collect him from nursery and encourage him to tell me what he had been doing, or what he had eaten for lunch etc. There would always be silence. I could ask him a closed question, like ‘did you have a jam sandwich?’ and he might sometimes be able to answer yes or no, but that was as far as conversation went with Sawyer at that time. Any short phrases he used were learned and meaninglessly repeated (echolalia) but at that point there hadn’t been any actual conversation between the two of us. When I was young, my Mum owned and ran a preschool in the town where we lived. I would often ponder the conversations I’d been able to have with children far younger than Sawyer and although all children are different (I’ve heard that a few times!) it was difficult not to compare him, and not to worry about how his difficulties would affect his school life.
I was worried that Sawyer would stand out as ‘weird’ from the start of school, and that the reputation would follow him throughout the rest of his school life. Simple things that other parents wouldn’t even think about when preparing to send their child to school haunted me constantly in the weeks before he started. How would he cope with drinking out of an open top cup? Sawyer lacked the concentration needed in the crucial moments between a cup being safely on a table, and haphazardly pressed to his mouth, causing frequent (constant!) spillages. By the time most children reach 4, concerns of this nature are usually few and far between, but the magnitude to me was overwhelming. His eating habits were also a concern, as they had been from as soon as he weaned on to solid food. Sawyer knew that he liked certain foods and those foods were (still are) jammed in to his mouth until it was full to capacity. I’ve read that mouth-stuffing is a common trait in children with autism, and that it stems from a sensory issue I am yet to understand. I intend to dedicate an entire post to the issues we’ve faced with food, but to give you the gist Sawyer basically lived on jam sandwiches until he was 4.5 years old. For those wondering, yes, I’m sure he would have eventually eaten when he was hungry, but I wasn’t willing to starve him half to death for a few days before his senses finally told him it was time to eat. Bit of pent up resentment there? You could say that.
I’ve just realised that I’ve identified some of my pre-school concerns as speech, eating and drinking. No wonder I was stressed, they’re pretty fundamental things to be concerned about. I mean when was the last time you went a day without doing any of those 3 things? When was the last time you went an hour without doing one of them? I wonder if it’s a coincidence that those things have jumped to the front of my mind, or whether it was my brain’s way of trying to put things in an order of importance. In any case, my concerns were vast and spanned all areas of school life, from education to friendships, enemies and fitting in. It also occurs to me now that when I thought about Sawyer starting school, I wasn’t only thinking about reception class and how he would find this new chapter of his life – I was thinking about things on a much larger scale. I wasn’t just trying to give Sawyer the tools to cope with starting school, I was trying to give him the tools to cope with year 1, secondary school, work…. life. And that’s how life is for me most of the time. I spend my days thinking about how the way things are dealt with now will affect the future for Sawyer. I try to teach him daily how to adapt to the world around him in the hope that as he grows older he will already have the resources and knowledge to cope with whatever life throws at him and his additional needs.
Sawyer’s first day at school came with a mix of emotions as you’d expect to hear from any parent. It was a strange feeling that my first-born was going in to someone else’s care for such a large amount of time each week, and I knew that I would miss him. The control-freak in me found it difficult to accept that someone else would be ‘in charge’ from then on and I was nervous that they wouldn’t understand him and his issues. One main reason I wanted Sawyer diagnosed as early as possible was so that when he started school they would understand that he had additional needs and not put his lack of concentration and social impropriety down to being naughty. To give you an idea of what I mean by that, when Sawyer was 4 he didn’t like his clothes to get wet, but instead of being able to vocalise it, he would simply undress wherever he was at the time. When he needed a wee, he would pull his trousers and pants down before any attempt was made to find the toilet. His vocabulary was limited and I guess to him these actions seemed like the first logical step in seeking assistance, oblivious to the fact that people were watching and laughing. You can’t help but admire that quality. Sawyer’s diagnosis was the piece of paper I felt I needed so that I could show his teachers why he behaved in certain ways, and why sometimes he seemed a bit… well, weird.
On his first day of school, Sawyer and I had never had a conversation. He had never been able to recognise emotions and if he could, he certainly wasn’t able to express how he felt. Although we had talked at him throughout the summer holidays about starting school, what the days would be like, who the people were and so on, he had only ever repeated my words back to me, and had never shown any signs that he had taken anything on board. Sawyer was un-phased as I attempted to take pictures of him in his school uniform that morning, and he didn’t stay still long enough for me to explain that his water bottle was in his bag, or that I would pick him up at the end of the day. We got in the car and he was his usual noisy, happy self as I started to drive to the school. I asked him some questions that he ignored and then there was a typical period of silence, before suddenly his little squeaky voice came from the back seat.
“I’m scared”, he said.