Autism and School Swimming

048When school swimming started last week at our small catholic rural primary, my excited boy and I turned up at the pool first thing in the morning. Covered in sunscreen, both wearing swimmers, we nervously awaited our group allocation.

The swimming coordinator/teacher has known all my children from birth as she had a baby due on the same day as my eldest girl. We have been to birthday parties at her house, delivered gifts when she had personal tragedies, sewn quilts for her next child, compared music teachers and drunk champagne together. Mostly we have seen each other at the pool. Where we go every day. Seriously. Rain, hail or shine we go to our local pool every day. We have practically adopted the pool manager and his family.

This teacher knows our children can swim like fish. She knows my boy with autism is especially keen on water and the pool. She has seen him swimming laps, she has helped him remember which stroke he was doing at the beginning of each race at last year’s carnival and she has put him in a swimming group last year where the kids had to swim 8 laps of different strokes in their allocated half hour session. He did it!

But this year the kids were assigned to group after group until only the last few kids were left including my son. She asked if I would help in this group and I said yes. When we got to the side of the pool it became obvious that the kids were not confident in the water. Some were uneasy getting in the shallow end while others wouldn’t put their heads under water. My boy was keenly holding on to the side and bouncing with excitement waiting for the action to start. He had been put into the NON-swimmers group!

I noticed when a couple of the boys were sent up a group to a harder level and thought my boy would be soon sent on. It didn’t happen. We were in the pool floating on our backs, swimming with a kick board and kicking off from the side for the whole lesson.

When I went home I thought about the lesson. I wondered why my competent and confident swimming boy would be put into a group that does not suit his needs. I read the note we had about swimming that said the children would be “practicing for the swimming carnival or learning to swim”. His swimming group allocation made no sense to me.

In the afternoon I went to see the swimming teacher and ask her if my son was in the group that was right for him as he could swim. I told her I was fine with him being in that group if there was a reason as he only needed reminding what each stroke was called and he could swim many laps.

Amongst other teacher talk (I am a trained teacher so I can say that! Ha!) she asserted that my boy would slow the others down (he is faster than me) and may “dolphin dive” while swimming a lap (so what?). Despite telling us all at the pool that these groups were fluid and may not be the best fit for our child and parents were welcome to discuss their child’s group after swimming.

After school I missed several calls where the swimming teacher left a message saying she had”come up with a solution”.  I rang the school back. The swimming teacher had left for the day but the Principal said she was able to report on what they had decided after our discussion. The “solution” to the problem of me mentioning that although my boy can swim like a fish and was placed in a non-swimming group was a corker!

The staff had decided that if I wanted my boy to go to another swimming level then I had to get into the pool with him and do all the activities with him and swim laps with him so he didn’t miss out on any of the instructions! I was speechless. This very much sounded like blackmail to me. I asked a question so they decided to offer me what my child was due with the proviso that I do it all as well! Would they do that to a parent of a typical child? (How ridiculous to even ask!!!!)

My boy has autism. He is unable to complete the NAPLAN tests. He is beginner reader. Sometimes I arrive to volunteer in the school and he is sitting all alone eating his lunch. But he is kind. Good natured. Never wants to be in trouble.  Loves being read to. Loves drawing. Loves the playground. And love love loves swimming!

Swimming is his thing. He can do it. He goes all year feeling or appearing to his classmates as a struggler, an outsider, different, less than, disabled. Suddenly we get to swimming season and he is capable, buoyant and truly ABLE!

Why does the school want to belittle his achievements in learning to swim and our achievements in taking him to the pool so often that he just had to swim from an early age?

I volunteer at the school every afternoon when he doesn’t have an aide to make the teachers lives easier. I volunteered to help at swimming and was the only parent in my swimmers in the pool.

Why would asking a question about my child’s swimming group culminate in me being told I have to swim every lap with him? Twelve months ago he was swimming 8 laps a session with me walking beside him calling out if the stroke had changed. Why would he have regressed in a year?

Is it because, even when they are wrong or mistaken or unskilled in an area, schools always have to win?






Casual Cruelty

I have returned from the drop off at school again today in tears. My boy, a beautiful, curious and sweet boy of nine years of age, has again bravely entered a world that is confusing, lonely and quite incomprehensible at times.

He has autism. This is school and, indeed life, for him.

All the way to school he asked to come home with me. I had forgotten his afternoon tea bag but said I would come back with it. That was a bad start. Anything out of the ordinary can make him feel unsettled and  unhappy. Lucky for me today, he was feeling pretty upbeat and the begging to return home stopped when we pulled up at the gate.

Our neighbours pulled up behind us. She is my friend and the boys are in the same class. We tried to wait for them but they seemed to be going very slow and I realised the boy didn’t want to walk in to school with my boy.

So, like always, I put my head down and kept going.

We put my boy’s bag where he has been told to put it so that he has a regular comforting spot. That place was taken and even after I moved some bags along, my neighbours boy pushed our bag into a hard to get to place, squashed up, inaccessible.

If I wasn’t there I’m pretty sure my boy’s bag would be on the ground. Pushed off. Left there.

And yesterday, one of the boys made my child wait an eternity while he got what he wanted out of his bag before he let my boy put his bag in his designated spot. I was watching.

We rushed to assembly after the bell and I told my son where to line up in age lines. He was heading there when the neighbours boy ran in and took the first place in the line. My little boy gets confused in all that morning rumpus so I told him to stay behind “Jack”.

Next thing you know, Jack has seen people he would rather be with and taken off to a group of boys at the end of the line leaving my kid confused and not sure if he is doing the right thing.

Nobody said hello to my beautiful boy. Nobody ran at him to greet him. He had just been at home drawing amazing pictures of garbage trucks filled with “trash” and a moose with a beard and telling us poems he had heard. But when he enters this place he is not valuable. He is not a person with wit and caring and a sparkle in his eye. He is the special boy. He is alone.

Understanding and Reacting to “Non-Compliance:” A Letter to Teachers.

We are struggling to be respected, heard and dealt with fairly at our local public school. Our seven year old boy with autism is the pawn in a struggle between what we want for him ( calm , safe , familiar environment with known people) and the school’s desire to use his funding in any way they feel like and push us out if we ask to help ( as we have done for years, both as teachers and volunteers).
This article rang very true to us – when teachers don’t recognise the struggle and the courage of these beautiful children trying to fit into life and give them extra time or a helping hand, behaviour that is fully explainable can be misconstrued.

Autism & Oughtisms

The following is a letter I have just written that I shall be giving to my son’s teaching team next week. He has attended a mainstream school since the start of this year, prior to that he spent two years at a Special School. I think it is worth sharing on my blog, because it touches on issues relevant to all autistic children, and on the problematic issue of dealing with seemingly”non-compliant” behaviours. The only change I have made to the letter, is my son’s name; to protect his identity and privacy I have changed his name to “Joe.”

Joe can appear to be a non-compliant or stubborn child, but in my experience the non-compliance is almost always a reaction to something he can’t or hasn’t verbalised.

His autism means he struggles with communication, anxiety, social interactions, and understanding instructions (for example, because of his literalness). He also continues to…

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Coming Home

I moved back to my bucolic  little country town almost ten years ago from smack-bang in the middle of Sydney. A tiny terrace house in Chippendale to be precise. I left my Kindergarten teaching position and brought my little babies (two girls aged 1 and 6 weeks) back home to raise them free from car thieves, traffic noise and pollution. I was desperate to get away from the deadlocks and lack of off-street parking and back to where “everybody knows my name..”.

I envisioned our country lives full of freedom, gardening and acceptance. Possibly also some respect from having gone away to university and teaching children in Sydney and England and then choosing to come home to raise mine.

And there have been good times. There are some still every day. We have dogs that can roam anywhere on our hectare of land but continue to go AWOL whenever we go inside. (The across the road neighbour has a little boy with never ending patience for ball throwing – we can’t compete!)

We have started growing a raised garden with actually useful food in it for the first time in years because our hugely destructive chooks have all died. They were isa- browns and so productive that I think they laid themselves to death! I loved them (and the eggs) and cried when they died but I’m pretty pleased with the garden!

We don’t have to lock our house or our car yet! We always get a park at the shops in the tiny CBD (it’s a only block but it has almost everything!). The pool man who recently retired loved our family and made a fuss over us everyday of every summer. He lent us some sheep to keep down our back paddock. My husband visits him at home to talk about guns and shearing.

Our next door neighbours have been wonderful and friendly. My mum is nearby on her own farm and comes to read a story to the kids every night when my husband is away at work and calls in whenever we need her to mind the kids.

We’ve met some lovely friends and reconnected with others I once knew.

All good!!

But…and there’s always a but..the local central school has been such a bitter, bitter disappointment it is hard to put into words.

My mum has taught in this school since 1977 when my brother and I started attending this school after our family moved here from Papua New Guinea. I have taught at this school early in my career and last year. My husband , mother and I have volunteered in every capacity in the school we could think of especially running the Home Reader program for the whole school one day a week for the last two years. We have been on excursions, walked classes to sporting events, concerts, worked in tuckshop, joined and worked in P&C activities like fete stalls, took time out to go on teacher employment panels, baking cakes etc. My children have attended this school from Kindergarten and yet…when my big girl became stressed and sick with anxiety over bullying, racism and ostracism at school last year we tried every avenue to make some changes and we were blocked at every turn.

The problem was a teacher who was employed in our school as an Assistant Principal but had no interest in controlling the children or, indeed, teaching them. Children were running wild, in and out, of the classroom. One was injured so badly that medical reports were made in order to make a formal complaint (by a parent who teaches at the same school). Children roamed the room shouting at each other, bouncing balls off others heads, kicking footballs into and out of the classroom and leaving the room via the window. It was like “Lord of the Flies” without the desert island!

We, being from a teaching background ourselves, did what we deemed to be the right things about the situation. We approached the classroom teacher when our daughter was distraught and didn’t want to go to school because of the behaviour allowed in the classroom.

The teacher (Assistant Principal) was quite matter of fact about being unable to control the class saying that at her previous school she had really well behaved asian children like our daughter. She conceded that something would be done ie. the bad behaviour would result in “Behaviour  Books” etc.

After school we asked our girl if her teacher had mentioned our meeting and the teacher had taken her within earshot of a group of bullying girls and told her that if she couldn’t cope with the bad behaviour in class then our daughter could walk out at any time and go to the toilet to “calm down”. We were gobsmacked!

Deeming her classroom teacher to be incompetent, we then reported a slew of incidents involving racism, ostracism and bullying to our Deputy (Primary) who later confessed she had no influence over classroom management and we should have spoken to the Deputy (Secondary) who is in charge of both Welfare and Discipline in our central school.

She (Deputy -Primary) referred our daughter to counselling that entailed a type of resilience training, as if the problem was with perception rather than the reality of an out of control classroom with a non-caring teacher. We found later that the child who had needed a medical report for injuries sustained in the classroom was also offered “Resilience Training”. Not quite what he needed.

When subsequently approached with the details of our situation, the Deputy (Secondary) who we pinned all our hopes on as a good person, floored us with the comment that ” you will have to vote with your feet” . I was speechless at the indifference displayed in that throw away line when he could have made all the difference to our lives with his actions.

My daughter begged me to come into her class as a volunteer at this time and I asked and was finally allowed in. It was exactly as I thought. There were children wandering, hurting others, rubbing their names off the naughty list, being outright rude to me and leaving the classroom at all times while the teacher remained oblivious or indifferent.

After a fortnight, my mum and I decided to approach the Principal. This Principal had a history with us as he had been in my brother’s class at school and my mum had taught him and we believed we had a good professional relationship.

We explained everything we had witnessed, who we had approached, what our daughter was dealing with and how the teachers were not keeping the children safe.

We did it for more than my child. We did it for everyone who didn’t know better and who couldn’t speak out against the terrible injustices of bullying and non-teaching happening in her classroom.

And he turned against us from that day.

It was the same month that he chose me for the Community Member Award for Education week for all the work that I (and my family) had done for the school.

He chose to protect the badly chosen (by him) Assistant Principal rather that the vulnerable children under his care.

And this was just the start of the story really…

After much soul searching we applied and were accepted to a private school in the closest town nearby (45 minutes drive) so the girls were able to escape the dreadful power games being played out in our school.

But for our darling little boy, only half way through Kinder when this huge upset occurred, the future remains uncertain. He has mild autism and his story is complex and his path will be different. He is so happy in his familiar surroundings and near his friends he had known since preschool. It is a huge decision what we do for him as we only want to do the best.

But for the Principal at our school, his spite had only just begun….