A long, self-indulgent whinge of a post today for Monday club, but it was either this or ‘Granny Porn’. Both seemed inappropriate, really, but I didn’t want to let Monday Club or my lovely friend Sarah down, and this seemed the lesser of two evils. Feel free to bail at any time, and I promise I’ll post something more upbeat next week…
My son, Ben, goes back to school tomorrow for his last two weeks of exams before leaving for good. Ben has autism, and throughout his secondary years has attended a special ed. school as a resident student from Monday to Friday, coming home every weekend and for all school holidays.
The decision to send him there was a difficult one; academically he had fared reasonably well in a local mainstream primary but the gap between him and his peers had grown wider and it had become increasingly apparent that the support of a teaching assistant wasn’t really compensating for all of the other distractions. He needed smaller classroom sizes and more support during lessons, and a less busy and chaotic environment during unstructured times. There were some bullying issues, too, which despite the best efforts of teaching staff seem almost inevitable where ‘difference’ is introduced into the playground dynamic. That got worse as the children moved from infants to juniors, and the prejudices of the adults around them started to percolate downward. ‘Give me a child until he is seven…’ said the Jesuit, and he was right.
With hindsight, I’m not so sure that the decision to go residential was the right one, despite appearing the logical (well, Hobson’s) choice at the time. With no local specialist provision that could meet his academic needs and all local secondaries (even the ones with a good ‘rep’ on SEN) appearing inappropriate I had a strong argument to offer the local LEA, and I was convinced it was the option most likely to succeed myself, but it would have been so much better if local mainstream provision had been able to offer better opportunities for successful integration.
In truth, the specialist school hasn’t really delivered in the way I wished. The independent living skills I hoped he would acquire as part of a 24 hour curriculum weren’t fully realised, and from an academic point of view I feel he’s been able to ‘swing the lead’ in a way he wouldn’t have elsewhere. I don’t think this is as simple as lowered expectations on the school’s part (though that may be part of it), and Ben has certainly not helped himself – a realisation he’s arrived at just a little too late as he crams for his final exams – but either way the end result has been a disappointing one. The reality may just be that small classrooms full of children with additional support needs rather than large classrooms with a few such pupils represent a ‘swings and roundabouts’ equation. As Bart puts it in an episode of the Simpsons: ‘So we’re in here [remedial class] because we’ve fallen behind, and we’re going to catch up by working slower…?’
One major regret for me has been that I’ve not been involved in the same way I was at his primary school, and I haven’t been able to ‘pick up the slack’ in the same way I did then with extra-curricular support at home. This is partly natural – parents do have less input at secondary levels – but also relates to physical distance from the school and diminished interaction with other parents and students. With no homework to monitor and only the weekends available to squeeze in all of the other stuff he misses out on I have been dependent on the school for guidance, and, sadly, this has generally been of the fire-fighting variety rather than ongoing and practical advice about academic achievements. Annual reviews have always been very positive, but over the past couple of years I’ve realised this to be something of a smokescreen.
It would be great to say that the bullying issues stopped, but in truth they’ve actually been worse at times, leading to two crises where I almost made the decision to change schools. SEN children come from the same mix of backgrounds and experience exactly the same kind of influences and pressures as mainstream kids, and there are other complex dynamics that come into the equation too. It’s unsurprising, then, that bullies are just as common in SEN schools as mainstream schools and that, just like mainstream bullies, they tend to make victims of their more passive peers and/or those they perceive as outsiders. Ben, as a somewhat ‘gobby’ but totally non-aggressive residential pupil, became a target on both counts.
My biggest regret has been that Ben’s residency has dramatically limited his opportunities for socialising at home. I have worked hard to help him maintain relationships with a few of his primary school friends, and he regularly has mates round at the weekends, but these friendships are very much of the fair-weather variety. It’s understandable in some ways – most sixteen-year old boys are struggling to fit in and negotiate their own social identities, so they are going to have to be pretty exceptional to befriend, in an inclusive rather than exclusive way, children who are ‘different’ and attract negative value judgements from their wider peer group.
While appreciating all of that it’s still very difficult for me and Ben to come to terms with. He mostly appears to take it in his stride but I know it does bubble to the surface from time to time. For me, it is a major fear as he enters sixth form at a local college: that he will remain an ‘outsider’ and be largely disregarded by his peers, or, even worse, become a target because of his compromised social understanding, naivety and gullibility. I regularly take Ben out to local music events and other stuff, and I love doing that, but I’m really waiting for the day when if we do meet at that kind of venue it’s because he’s there with his mates and I’m there with mine. He doesn’t need me, the oldest swinger in town, as a BFF, he needs someone his own age.
I recently came to the realisation that, for all sorts of reasons (mainly fear, if I’m honest), I’ve had my own life pretty much on hold since the day I became a single parent. I’ve had a couple of failed relationships in that period (of which Ben knew nothing, other than that for brief periods we had extra friends in our lives at the weekends) but have spent the past five or six years isolating myself, emotionally at least, completely. I convinced myself this was for Ben’s benefit; that I was protecting him from my fallibility (rank hypocrisy on my part because I despise ‘martyrdom’ in all forms) but I guess subconsciously I have known all along there’s a personal agenda in there too.
Over the past 18 months or so I’ve been ‘doing social’ more regularly and forcing myself out of my comfort zone, and that’s led to a couple of road to Damascus moments:
- Ben doesn’t need that kind of father any more (if he ever did)
- I don’t want to be that person any more.
When Ben first went to residential school I felt lonely for the first time in years. After a couple of years I started to like that feeling. I felt safe, and I was happy with my own company. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that with Ben coming home ‘full-time’ in just a couple of weeks I am now feeling more lonely than ever, and doubly ironic that it’s not the kind of loneliness a parent/child relationship can fulfil.
I’m still just as determined that my fallibility won’t negatively impact on Ben’s life, so negotiating a relationship – assuming I can meet someone with whom I would want a relationship who feels the same way about me – is going to be incredibly complicated, and further complicated by the fact that at my age (don’t ask, I’m not telling!) anyone I might meet is likely to have complications (I hate the term ‘baggage’) of their own. I’ve also realised that as relationship material goes I’m pretty much a non-starter: a single dad with no money, no career, no prospects, and all the innate social skills of a cornered rat! If I had a pot to piss in I could perhaps sell it on E-Bay and buy a self help book for under-achievers along the lines of ‘how to win friends and influence people’, but it would need to be a very comprehensive tome taking into account all of the other psychological barriers I’ve managed to construct around me…
Oh well, who knows, perhaps a gorgeous, financially independent young lady with low expectations, endless patience and a sprinkling of self-esteem issues will be waiting round the next corner for me. Fingers crossed, eh?