You Should Be Writing This Down

The third of four school terms began here in my part of the world in the middle of July, and it began with rather more of an event than I’d anticipated. The school counsellor sent me an email the day before suggesting I pop in for a bit of a planning session, but by the time I arrived that next, first-day-of-the-term morning the planning session had morphed into a full-blown meeting, with two department of education representatives present, along with my son’s classroom teacher, the relieving acting principal (don’t ask) and the school counsellor. With my husband along as well it made for seven in the room.

The department’s disability specialist ran the show. Which of course meant the experience was vastly different from the quick chat I was expecting to have with the school counsellor.

What happened next has led more than a dozen people to instruct me “You should be writing this down”. Already I’m wondering what I’ve forgotten, what disappeared in the white rage that engulfed me for more than a fortnight after. But I’m completely clear on the bits that people are talking about when they exclaim “You should be writing this down!”, and it went a bit like this….

The disability specialist said things I now don’t remember, mostly things about autism, with ideas for my son that were like a series of activities for a generic checklist of behaviours associated with the autism spectrum. Only my son doesn’t have that generic list of behaviours – he clearly has issues with anxiety and with sensory processing and with interacting with other children appropriately, but no motor clumsiness or weak muscle tone, no issues with language pragmatics, no trouble identifying emotion in others, and so on. So when the specialist mentioned the Transporters app for helping my son recognise basic emotions I had to restrain an eyeroll, and when she talked about my son ‘barking words off a page’ (that’s what’s she said) and needing help with comprehension I couldn’t be bothered being temperate and interrupted her to say “Oh, his comprehension is just fine – I’m not up on current primary school standards, but I’d be confident saying he’s comprehending at an 8 or 9 year old level”.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised some five minutes later. “We all know your son is very bright, but he’s just going to have to learn to dumb himself down for the rest of us,” the specialist explained. This is the point when I could feel rage tear through every part of me – fury at the notion that a five year old would be expected to moderate his capacities for the convenience of a disability specialist from the department of education who hadn’t even done enough research on his needs to be able to offer appropriate suggestions for his development and support; despair that the public education system was equipped neither for my son’s abilities nor for his disabilities; grief at the dumbing-down I had had to do year after year in my own childhood, the pain of cramping my thoughts into little clumps of stupid for the consumption of authority figures, the exhaustion from trying to second guess which thoughts would be seen as appropriate and which would be seen as insolent, the frustration at being expected to ‘show my working’ when there wasn’t any working required for what was to me so obvious an answer, all manner of these personal griefs; and then straight into rage that a woman with the IQ of 115 was trying to tell my five year old son, struggling with aspects of autism, should in addition now have to struggle to work at dumbing himself down.

This woman continued talking – and who knows what she was saying exactly? An ocean of contempt had already filled the gap between our continents.

to be continued….


Shapes and Labels

I’m an educator and musician. I know from my experience that seeing shapes and noticing patterns is how children – and grown-ups – make sense of the world, and an important part of seeing and noticing is knowing the labels that belong to these shapes and patterns: once you know what a pentagon¬†is you start to see them everywhere; knowing they are called pentagons means you can talk about them. Without that label ‘pentagon’ all the pentagons of the world merge with all the other unmentionable polygons of the universe in the arena of what-we-cannot-discuss.

I’m an advocate for students developing vocabularies about what they experience right from the start – no avoiding technical terms, no preservation of a mythical linguistic ‘innocence’. If the child is interested enough to want to talk about something they will learn how to say its name: exhibit A – hippopotamus.

Equally, I’m an advocate for not prescribing or limiting how children can perceive the world: correcting a child’s perceptions prevents the adult from learning about the structures the child has already conceived of – exploring a child’s perceptions is more joyous response and results in more learning, for everyone. Children operate quite logically, and if we can’t see the logic it’s not that it isn’t there, it’s that we haven’t figured it out yet.

And, as of nearly five years ago, I’m also a parent, the mother of a gorgeous little boy who has intrigued and delighted us since his arrival in the first quarter of 2007. He’s starting school this year, ahead of the game in some ways (able to read, to spell, to count beyond 100 and back again) and behind in others (following instructions, doing what the group does, making friends). The discrepancy between the ahead and the behind is certainly sufficient for him to be classified as ‘special needs’ and we know we are on the verge of a capital D diagnosis.

We’re going to learn that our son is Gifted, and we’re going to be told that he is somewhere on the Asperger’s end of the Autism Spectrum. We’ve seen enough specialists (and enough specialists have seen us) to know that this is what is coming.

It will be a relief. And it will be somewhat devastating. It will challenge who we think we are as a family, and it will confront the way my husband and I engage in our parenting. It will make us examine our own childhoods, and it will give us permission (just that little bit) to feel as exhausted by parenting as we really are.

And then there is the terror that the labels my son is given will prevent people from seeing his real dimensions, the fear that maybe labels will prevent him from knowing himself without overwhelming self-consciousness. The usual parenting anxieties as experienced through the lens of designated difference.

This blog is this story. Thank you for having me, and welcome.


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