This post is about my journey from feeling fearful and hostile about placing my child in a special school to completely embracing special education.
For the first year of school the Bean did a split placement between a local mainstream primary and a local special school. In his second year, we took the decision to take him out of mainstream entirely. The Bean is flourishing now he is full time at special school and we know that this is the correct place for him. To begin with, however, I experienced some very negative feelings about special education and was strongly hoping that he could go to mainstream.
Firstly I want to say I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having an initially hostile reaction to the prospects of putting one’s child in special education. Scepticism is an entirely natural reaction. There are strong emotions involved in this decision and wherever strong feelings are present reasoning can be impaired. I think, with hindsight, I probably pushed in the wrong direction to begin with and it took a while to “see the light”. The purpose of the post below is to share my own journey and hopefully help others struggling with the same negative feelings. I’m not saying that the split placement was a ghastly mistake or anything but it was, perhaps, a decision based more on my own emotional needs rather than what was best for the Bean.
To mainstream or not?
Note: I say MY prejudices because this was probably, if I am honest, more to do with me than my wife who was, from the outset, far more comfortable with special education.
Barriers of emotion
I’m going to be brutally honest about how I felt throughout this journey. Some of the views of my past self I would probably find offensive now, and certainly foolish, but I think it’s important to get them out there for other parents who may be going through similar deliberations to read. So if anyone reading this feels a prickle of offense at my descriptions of what I used to think, please stop and reflect before hating on me. Remember, I’m at a good place now with regards to how I see our special kids. Also remember that most parents, unless they are fucking saints, go through this process.
We are all flawed beings. We all have prejudices about those that are different. This very much includes the prejudice against the disabled. I don’t want to self-flagellate too much, but the simple truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people do view conditions like autism as something bad, or worse, even shameful. On the flip side we have all been conditioned by decades of political correctness not admit these “sinful” feelings. If we are honest, they are still there in most of us. I’m not saying that people in general are bigoted or hostile to the disabled but again, if we are really honest with ourselves, beneath the veneer of politically correct words, there is still a feeling of uncomfortableness in many of us around those with physical or mental disabilities.
When something like autism happens to your child these prejudices can cause problems. On the one hand we know that we are not “supposed” to find these disabilities disturbing, especially in our nearest and dearest. Nonetheless, these feelings do occur despite how well conditioned we are to find them “sinful”. Thankfully most people will quickly get over these prejudices when it comes to their own children. Parental love kicks those icky feelings into touch pretty swiftly, but this is not quite the same as overcoming prejudice completely.
Our own children are, initially at least, seen as the exception rather than the rule. They are akin to the black mate of the racist who is “alright for a darkie”. For the children of others, and the wider disabled community, our innate prejudices and fears are harder to overcome. But because we can’t talk about these feelings honestly, for fear of being seen as some kind of bigoted monster, they fester. On the surface we are all “positive about autism” and we say the right words but deep down we may not believe the words we are saying.
This dynamic sets up an internal conflict within many parents. On the one hand they love and accept their own child, but on the other hand they find kids like them a bit disturbing. Unable to talk about such feelings and work through them, we end up holding two mutually incompatible ideas in our heads. We know that our own child is like those other kids we find disturbing, but we accept our own child completely so another part of our mind tells us that they can’t REALLY be like those others. Holding two contradictory ideas at the same time creates the phenomena of cognitive dissonance. This can be psychologically distressing and is the root cause of much of the world’s irrationality.
The human mind likes consistency and when it is forced to hold two inconsistent beliefs our brains will try their best to work out the paradox. One way in which this conflict is resolved is denial. In this situation, we tend to engage in some mental gymnastics to come up with reasons as to why our kids are not like the other special kids, even though we know they are really. This is why many parents, I think, tend towards artificially favouring a mainstream educational setting.
Mainstreaming is a way to resolve the internal conflict. If their child can do mainstream then they don’t have to be part of that “special” world and so avoid the things that make them feel uncomfortable. Any exposure to special schools and other special kids is a sharp reminder of the internal conflict and so is avoided. Of course, this motivation (to avoid thinking about the conflict within) can never be expressed openly because that’s just not politically correct. This is where the self-deception starts. There is a danger that a parent in such turmoil will start to falsely justify why their child should be in main stream, why their child is not that “special”.
How do I know this is true? Because this was my process. I think, If I’m really honest, logically I knew the Bean should go to special school full time from the start, but I resisted this. On the surface I presented some very logical arguments about how mainstream would be good for socialising and accessing peer to peer learning. These and other seemingly sound arguments meant mainstream was at least worth a shot. But what I was secretly hoping was that the Bean would, at some stage, be able to move over to mainstream and away from those other kids who were not like him really. I was hedging my bets, but the bet was made on faulty information. What I was really doing was looking for a way out from my own prejudices, my own internal conflict.
So did we fuck up in that first year?
Well not really. The Bean is pretty autistic but not so different that mainstream was a completely silly idea. With hindsight it was a bit of a waste of a year and he probably would have done better if he had gone straight to special school. But given the information we had at the time, the decision was not totally and irrationally based on my prejudices. There was a logic to the decision and this was not entirely a false logic trying to justify an internal conflict.
Thankfully, I became acclimatised to special school over that year, managed to get over myself and got on board with the advantages of Special Ed. But split placements are a rarity. Most parents in our situation don’t have that option. It is one or the other. I can see that, without exposure to special schools, parents may let their natural aversions continue to cloud their judgement and push for mainstream when it is perhaps not the best place for their child. And it is to these parents that I aim this post.
I do not want to tell you what to do, but I do want you to understand that I get it, I have felt what you feel about Special Ed. I know that it disturbs you. I know that you can’t say that to anyone. I know you feel ashamed for feeling that. I know you think it will feel like you are giving up on your kid if you send them that place. I know you have read the inspiration porn about amazing mums who fight for their kids to go to mainstream and by jove those kids proved all the experts wrong and went on to get a joint honour degree in being brilliant and clever from Oxbridge. I know you hope that your kid will be like the kids in those stories. I know you tell yourself that your kid is not like those others at special school, not really. But I know that, deep down, you know they are and that thought nags at you and irritates you. It prickles your intellect like an angry verruca. You try to ignore it but you can’t quite ever put it aside. I know all this because I did all of the above myself. But, we were incredibly lucky to have been able to do a split placement and to be able to contrast the two environments side by side in real time. This luck meant the evolution of my thinking has happened very fast. In the space of a year I went from being almost entirely negative about special school to now, where the thought of mainstreaming the Bean brings me out in a cold sweat.
So am I, or are you, a horrible person?
Well in short, no. We are just human beings with the same prejudices everyone has. Our move towards a more tolerant culture is undoubtedly a good thing, but the phenomena of “being PC” does mean we often find it hard to acknowledge our prejudices. As I said above, we know what we are “supposed” to think and say and when this is in conflict with what we actually feel it gets suppressed. Many are very quick to convict their fellow humans of “wrong think” and this is particularly true in liberal and left-leaning circles like my own peer group. “Virtue signaling” where we profess how “right on” and down with the disabled kids or other minorities we are is rife on social media. As, indeed, is public shaming. Those who transgress and commit wrong think end up being labeled as a bigot or some kind of “ist” or “phobe”. So, in this climate, when these feelings arise, we hide them for fear of a PC witch hunt and this suppression can be dangerous.
The good news is that, over time, one learns to get over ones prejudices. Where I am now on this journey is very different to where I was when Bean was starting school. Again I will emphasise that this was partly due to our incredible luck in being able to be eased into the world of special needs education via the split placement in the Beans first year at school. During this year I embraced the wonderful weirdness of not just Bean, but all his peers. These kids no longer disturb me as they might have done a year or two ago. It’s often said that being a special needs parent teaches you much and this is perhaps the biggest lesson. To truly accept these kids with their various oddities is to grow as a person. As I said, it’s simple to do it with your own but takes a bit more work with other people’s children.
It’s very easy to say the correct words. To say; “Oh I accept all kids with disabilities” but to truly mean it is another thing entirely. And that is what the Bean’s time at special school has taught me. I no longer see “spazy” kids. I no longer find it disturbing. I just see the Bean’s friends, his peers, his neurotribe, the kids like him. The kids like the little boy I love more than anything in the world. He is like them and they are like him and that’s cool with me. But getting here was a tough journey with much soul-searching. This is a journey that can only start if one admits to oneself those negative feelings in the first place. A failure to recognise one’s own prejudices will doom one to a prolonged period of denial. So I encourage all to take that first step. And I hope that maybe reading this will be a jolt back to reality for some.
If, as a parent, you can get to this genuine acceptance of the different then not only have you done something wonderful for your own child, you have just made yourself a better person. This is what our special kids teach us over and above neurotypical children. If one can truly accept these children with all their quirks, then things like race, sexuality, and gender that so often divide us are shown as the trivial and superficial differences that they are. I’m not saying this because I want to virtue signal about how right on I am. I say this merely as an observation of how I see my peer group of special parenting families. A more accepting, loving and caring group you will not find. Now, it IS possible that we have just been lucky and there just happened to be a rich seam of saintly people in the local area who also just happened to have kids with special needs, but I don’t think we are that lucky. Instead, I think our peer group consists of normal people with all the flaws and graces one finds in any population, but these normal families have all been through an extraordinary experience and it is this experience that teaches them the virtues displayed so readily. Going through this cannot but change a person for the better. Autism parenting may break our minds and bodies but I think our souls are almost universally strengthened and improved.
Embracing the weirdness
If you are a parent who is going through that internal conflict, don’t beat yourself up about it. You are a flawed human being just like me, just like all of us. If this is your first immersion into the world of special needs then, unless you are some kind of fucking saint, you will find it unsettling. We humans have a natural aversion of the different and we fear the unknown. This is the root of all our prejudices, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and our disquiet for the mentally and physically disabled. But, as with all the other “isms” and “obias” that plague our society, understanding and familiarity can dispel those irrational fears. If you take the plunge and immerse yourselves in special world, talk it through with others who will not judge you, you will find a way to square the peg and resolve the paradox. It’s not a question of working out that your kid is like those others, because deep down you know that already. Instead it is a question of accepting that those kids, like yours, are worthy of love and respect every bit as much as your own child is.
Note: I want to make absolutely clear that mainstream education is the right choice for many autistic kids. I do not want anyone to think that I am advocating special ed for all autistic people. Neither would I ever judge any parent who made the choice to mainstream. You know your kids better than anyone else and it is your choice. But hopefully, the above post may help some parents to stop and think things through properly. If a strong negative emotion is getting in the way of making the correct decision it might be a good idea to talk it through in a place where you will not be judged. Perhaps this post will be a catalyst for such conversations.