So. I have just returned from an hours round trip to pick up my twelve-year-old son from his Saturday dive club. For the second time in a day. Small things took place that have made me reflect on how we support SEND children and their families.
J. has taken to diving. He enjoys the routine of the preparation and the feast of sensory input. He loves to either be naked – or wearing a restrictive wet suit. He’s a boy of extremes. He loves the feeling of weightlessness, the quiet of below the surface and the sound his breathing makes underwater. Add to this his love of animals, and it is no surprise he consents to go without too much complaining. I say ‘consent’ because, given a choice of going anywhere, he would always prefer to stay home.
His dive teacher takes great pains to explain to me what they will be doing each day and what they will achieve. Not dissimilar to teaching in schools; the learning objective is everything. It isn’t a cheap hobby, and I get the sense she needs to assure me that she is giving me value for money. What she doesn’t know though, and what Jed doesn’t know is that as his mum, I am not interested in what new skill he will learn.
What ‘Dive Club’ and this teacher gives my boy is a sense of belonging. His dive teacher is a particular person. Her manner and kindness enable him to feel accepted, and this is something, sadly, he rarely feels. His autism means that he can come across as inappropriate and rude. Heaven help you, for example, if he passes you smoking on a street corner. You will hear the ins and outs of how you are going to die — brutal honesty.
The brutal truth is terrifying for the hardest of us, and I have seen responses to my son (both verbal and non-verbal) that have turned my stomach, broke my heart and activated my mother bear mode at the same time. As a professional, I know that when a person is threatened or hurt, it is hard for them to respond in a loving way. Avoidance or aggression are protective instincts. That’s why the mother bear in me stops short of ripping people’s heads off.
His dive teacher is one of the most accepting humans I have come across. Nothing seems to get a negative response from her. If she is offended, hurt or threatened, she doesn’t show it. She is clear and firm; never impatient or annoyed. This is very important. See, J might be autistic, but he is not blind to the reactions he fosters in others – he doesn’t always understand why others are angry with him. The link he makes is that he is bad. Unwanted. Disliked. This makes him even more anxious, and his truth-speaking (amongst other stimming responses – chewing, dancing, mimicked responses, monologues) ups the ante. This ‘weirdness’ causes further rejection and as we are hard-wired for belonging, it is very painful. Jack Nicholson was right; we can’t handle the truth. But more of us should try.
I pay for lessons and coax him out of the house each week for the sense of belonging his dive teacher gives. For acceptance. I would wager this is what all parents want from schools. I’m glad Ofsted judge cultural capital or my children’s ability to synthesise concepts across the curriculum, but they are nothing compared to relationality, belonging and acceptance.
She’s not all love and light, though. (Haha – none of us is!) Her passing comments to me as we left made me reflect on how I, as a teacher, may have made parents of SEND children feel. We forget that they are part of the equation.
As we were leaving, J. got his phone out of his pocket. “He’s not had that out all day,” she says with a knowing smile. “He’s only doing it now because he knows he can get away with it with mum. He knows the hierarchy here – what I say, goes.” Those short sentences said so much. I’ve got a nasty cold today, so all I could respond with was a tired, half-hearted smile as I left, feeling a bit crap – and not because of the cold.
Do I let him get away with things? Yes. As his mum, I overcompensate for the way he is dealt with by people who don’t take the trouble to understand him or his condition. Or manage their own emotional responses. (Sometimes, that is even me or dad).
As a teacher, do I give parents similar advice full of hidden, albeit unintended, judgement?
Shit. I do.
The realisation dawns heavily.
After today, I will try not to.