A couple of weeks ago my 14-year old daughter, Miss Em (who has Asperger’s Syndrome), started attending school for the very first time since preschool.
For the past two years she has been attending a local learning centre for kids with autism and related challenges, as part of her overall homeschooling program. This provided a safe environment in which she could practice her social skills, improve her focus and attention skills, and build enough stamina to get through a full day of activities. And she did very well. As of last fall she was attending 4 days per week. She was excelling academically and socially but…she was starting to get bored. She wanted to dive deeper into her school subjects, engage with a mentor, and she was also starting to look ahead to her goals beyond school: University is definitely in her plans. She also wanted to expand her social horizons beyond the small group at the learning centre, and see how she fared in a more neurotypical crowd.
For all these reasons, she decided to give high school a try. I knew that a regular public school would be too much for her: way too many kids, not enough personal interaction with mentors, and I knew from hearing other families’ tales of woe that our local public schools fail pretty miserably when it comes to supporting special needs kids. Not to mention the social environment in a large high school can be positively toxic, especially for a child who struggles with social interactions.
Alternatively, we have several elite private schools here, and although I was sure that the hefty tuition fees we’d be paying would net us some serious special ed support, their academic schedules are very intensive and the kids are carrying the weight of some very big expectations placed on their shoulders by the adults around them. I didn’t think my daughter would do well in such a high pressure environment.
Fortunately, there was one little private school I’d discovered a few years ago that happens to be within a 5 minute drive of our house. I had thought back then that if she ever wanted to go to school, this might be a good place to start. We toured the school just before the Christmas holidays and fell in love. It’s a small building, and there are only about 30 students in the whole school (grades 9 – 12). There are 4 teachers, and classes are either split in two (Grade 9/10 and Grade 11/12) or done with the whole school. So you can imagine that the teachers develop close relationships with the students, and the students with each other. I’ve found through my experiences with homeschooling that bullying is far less likely to take place in small groups with lots of adults around, and in multi-age groups.
We received a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and they were happy to consider accepting my daughter on a part-time basis. As a bonus, our homeschool program is paying the tuition fees! She was due to start right after the Christmas holidays, and there was a great deal of excitement in our family as that time approached. The plan was for her to attend 4 days/week for half-days at first, moving to full days in a week or two. They were just finishing up the first semester, so this would be perfect timing.
However, it turns out that neither my daughter nor myself anticipated what a huge change this would be for her. It’s not just dealing with the social situation – being a stranger in a crowd of unfamiliar faces, worrying about every word she says in case she embarrasses herself, etc…
But I didn’t stop to think about all the things she wouldn’t know by virtue of having never gone to school. Little things like transitioning between classes, how to distinguish handouts from assignments or homework. How to organize materials from different classes, what to do during class (take notes? Just sit and listen?), what to do on a break (stay in the classroom? Go outside?), etc. We had a steep learning curve ahead of us.
To be continued…