My Son on the Autism Spectrum and I Had a Negative Experience With His Teacher
As my husband will confirm, I tend to have vivid dreams which wake me up, sweating and sometimes gulping for air or shouting. Not a pretty sight, I am sure.
I have a few recurring dreams in my repertoire:
1. Maths O’level exam.
I recognize nothing familiar when I turn the exam paper over and go into a panic. I do calm down eventually and produce enough correct answers to scrape through with a Pass grade.
2. Being late for university finals exams only to realize I have no idea which building I have to be in and also realizing I have not revised at all for a whole paper. This one still haunts me at times of stress… 30 years later!
3. Miss Klaxon.
Let me explain. My son had the misfortune to have Miss Klaxon (not her real name, but with a foghorn voice, she would have been aptly named) as his teacher for one year, in primary school. I’m sure we can all remember some amazing and inspirational teachers, as well as some nasty ones from our school days.
Children are at the mercy of their primary school teachers. If he or she doesn’t like the child, it becomes a very long and miserable year. If a child is scared of the teacher, there is often no alternative.
Miss Klaxon believed her way was the right way, and Miss Klaxon decided pretty early in the school year who were her favorite students (those who toed the line and offered to sharpen pencils or run errands and fawn over her) and who were clearly and consistently “trouble” and needed to be brought into line. My son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum two years after having Miss Klaxon, but the signs were definitely already there, yet she was refused to acknowledge it. She believed my son needed to “man up” (yes, she actually said that) and grow a pair (she did not say that). For an already sensitive child, this was extremely difficult and he learned quickly to be silent at school and try to keep under her radar.
Unfortunately, the school administration was no use either in those days, and may have seen me as nothing more than an over-anxious mother or a trouble maker. They kept insisting Miss Klaxon had observed nothing of note, nothing to cause any concern.
The reason Miss Klaxon shows up in my list of recurring nightmares is this: towards the end of the school year, when we had nothing to lose, I requested a meeting. She phoned me in the morning saying my son was being “defiant” and that he was insisting he had not done anything wrong in some altercation that took place in the playground. So, I already knew my son would be agitated and upset by the time we saw him. The teacher insisted my son be present at the meeting. My husband took the afternoon off work. We got ushered into the classroom and had to sit on the ridiculously small chairs while Miss Klaxon sat on her regular office chair. Intimidation tactics. Then began the most excruciating half an hour of my life.
She proceeded to ask my son “yes or no” questions, which were impossible for a young autistic boy to answer honestly under pressure. The questions kept being fired at him and he was getting close to tears.
And here’s the thing — I did nothing. I was so stunned by this inappropriate approach, waiting for it to end, and it felt as though it would never end. It felt like some awful film clip I was watching as a passive observer. My son was stuck between a rock and a hard place: if he told the truth it would displease the dragon he had to spend six hours of each day with. If he lied, he knew I would not be pleased. Poor kid.
Finally, I was able to speak up. I told her this was a disgraceful way to speak to a child and to put pressure on him. I told her I was pleased that my husband was also in the room, as was the student teacher, because it meant it was not just my word against hers. She did flinch a little bit at this, but was unrepentant on the whole. We were dismissed.
I didn’t send my son to school the following day, or for the rest of the week, as he was in a heightened state of stress.
My nightmare, still, comes from my guilt of not standing up to her properly in that meeting, adult to adult. I didn’t confront her enough, I didn’t speak my mind enough. She was smug and confident enough to know the management would support her side (they did).
A few years later, my son had another overbearing teacher with no empathy skills. Things were a bit different at school by this time, the management had changed hands, and there was a much more nurturing atmosphere. I complained, politely of course at first and through the correct channels, but my son still had to get through the school year with her. At least my complaints were set on record in writing.
Never again will I let his vulnerability be abused. I am his fiercest advocate, I must speak up for his wellbeing, his rights and above all, his mental health and happiness. One would think that the main qualification for a primary school teacher should be to actually like children, and to respect their diversity and individuality.
Getty image by Andreyuu