As soon as we were settled into our new home in this beautiful new country, I started collecting telephone numbers of people who may be able to help us with Ian.
My first port of call was the nearest school, which had an Autism Unit. I telephoned the headmistress there and, with some reluctance, she agreed to meet with me.
Filled with naïve optimism, I made my way to meet the headmistress of the school and the teacher in charge of the Autism Unit. This was one of the reasons we had come to Ireland, the opportunity for appropriate schooling for our son.
They were not pleased to see me. Their unfriendly faces were matched by tacit hostility towards me as I described the home programme we had in place for Ian in South Africa.
Despite the fact that the unit was supposed to cater for six children, the headmistress kept saying it was full, even though I knew that there were only four children attending. Still, both she and the special needs teacher told me more than once that there wasn’t room for my child.
I was puzzled and slightly shocked. I had expected them to be interested in Ian’s progress, to want to know about Ian and what he’d learned. Instead I found that they were uninterested in what we might have done and completely unimpressed by what Ian might have learned.
I somehow kept the smile on my face but left as soon as I could, pretty certain in my own mind that it was not the place I wanted for Ian. *
However, other than that school – and other schools like it, but much further away – there was nothing else. I made phone call after phone call, pleading in vain with people who should have been in a position to help me, but couldn’t. What I wanted for my child just didn’t exist. **
I ended my last call deeply depressed. I was no further forward than I had been when I started. Here I was, in a new country, knowing virtually no one, desperately needing help, and feeling very much alone.
On paper, Ireland was Nirvana for the autistic child. It soon became apparent that these smart pamphlets were almost works of fiction.
There was nothing else for it. In the absence of something which I believed to be suitable for my son, I would have to continue Ian’s education at home, by myself.
So that’s what I did.
I gathered together some of Ian’s books from his bedroom, an assortment of toys, plastic letters, pens and paper, and sat down with him in the lounge at the coffee table. I seated Ian on the footstool, and I sat on the couch or on the floor beside him.
I knew which words Ian could read, and so I made a ‘book’ for him combining words he knew with new words he could learn, drawing pictures and writing neatly on plain A4 paper and stapling the lot together. I placed the book in front of him and read the words on the first page to him. Then I pointed to the first word and waited for Ian to read it back to me. He did. I pointed to the second word, which I knew he could read too. I waited. He read. I knew Ian didn’t know the third word, but I pointed to it anyway and waited. Ian glanced up at me, so I read the word for him and asked him to repeat it. My finger was still pointing to the word, and it stayed there until Ian read it to me. Then we read those first three words again, and this time Ian didn’t hesitate on the third word. Yes! He had just learned something new. I turned the page and we carried on.
We worked like this every morning. Within a week, I could set aside my homemade book as Ian could now read it from end to end. We moved on to others.
With my help, Ian learned to read all his books, to write sentences, do bigger and more complicated puzzles, and spell the names of his favourite animals with his plastic letters. He seemed more than happy to work at home, and appeared content with me as his only teacher.
His reading improved in leaps and bounds, his vocabulary was increasing almost daily and, once his work ethic was firmly re-established, he sat at the coffee table hour after hour, day after day, quite content.
This could not be forever, though. I just couldn’t see myself teaching Ian in perpetuity. So when two children left the Autism Unit at the school I had visited, and a place was offered to Ian, I rather reluctantly agreed to give it a go.
* If I was looking for enthusiasm, good energy, fun, and an upbeat learning environment, this Autism Unit was most definitely not it.
** In a perfect world, I had hoped to get Ian into a set up similar to the one we enjoyed in SA – into a group of younger children where he could benefit from acceptance without judgment, but where he would be guided by neuro-typical kids into a more ‘normal’ way of being. Young children are generally pretty accepting of another child’s oddities, before they acquire their own (adult-influenced) moral radar. But such a thing was unheard of in Ireland. I couldn’t even get Ian into a primary school class with (my) full supervision, on the premise that it would ‘distract the other children’.