My beautiful niece is now ensconced at boarding school, thanks to a few amazing people who believed in her and fought for her to get there. Prior to making an application to the school, I went to see the Deputy Head. Her response was a negative one. Maybe her view was stereotypical e.g. melt-downs, socially isolated, obsessed with a singular interest, who knows. She informed me that the school had some children with autism, but did not seem keen on me making an application for my niece. I partly put this down to the fact that her brother who was leaving the school that year, was not the over-confident pupil he was expected to be. Even though he achieved the results needed he had to be cajoled and did not take part in the rest of school life much, except for music. For parents or other relatives like myself, the same old situation continues to rear it’s ugly head – that the younger siblings are tainted with the same brush as the ones who have gone before. My niece and nephew are nothing like each other either in personality or academically. My niece is a stickler for detail and has a mathematical and scientific brain. She is a lot more confident and outgoing than her quieter brother, for whom still waters run deep.
Earlier this year, after offering my niece a place, the school contacted me very late into the academic year to inform me that they had changed their minds and would no longer retain a place for her. Their reason – they felt that she would struggle to fit in with the forthcoming year of robust girls. All this after they had observed my niece in her junior school, spoken to her teachers and she had passed the entrance exam. The Head of my niece’s school was already aware of the situation, when I contacted her the following day. On hearing that I had refused to accept their reasons for discriminating against my niece, she got on with making a case for the new school to have a re-think. I contacted a few organisations that dealt with children who had special needs or additional learning requirements, none of which applied to my niece. They could do nothing unless it was a state school. It was at this point it became clear that central and local government regulations are for state schools, thereby preventing such behaviour. Private schools function as independent charities, therefore are answerable to no one except their trustees and are at liberty to do what they like. It turned out that the Head of my niece’s school had a network of contacts, including knowing a trustee at the new school. The case was made for inclusivity and by June we were assured that she would be attending the new school come September. Throughout this time I kept this news secret from my niece and sister. What was the point of adding to my sister’s anxiety and lowering my niece’s self-esteem?
‘Why would you still want to send your niece to such a school?’ I hear you say. Well, it would be very clear to those involved at the new school, that they would be under the spotlight. Furthermore the Head of my niece’s junior school might be wary of recommending this school to others. In order to shore up my argument as to why she should retain her place, I utilised the assistance of the hands-off extended family, who lived close to the school, so that they would accommodate her short-term should she have a meltdown or struggle to cope on the odd occasion.
One week into the new school term, the matron informed me that my niece fitted in well and was one of the girls. It became clear that my niece embraced her new life as she was no longer living in isolation outside of school and was kept busy throughout the day. A child/adult with high functioning autism is rarely late for a lesson and is a stickler for the rules, sometimes taking them a bit too literally. The ridiculous thing is that the fears the new school had about my niece fitting in and possible negative behaviours, could relate to any neuro-typical child at any school. The label ‘Autism’ can bring to the fore negative connotations for those with little knowledge and/or experience of what it means for each individual and their families, living with the condition.