What can be done to help a school refuser?
The situation that you describe sounds very difficult, and we wish we were in a position to provide specific practical advice. Our team at OTARC includes psychologists, speech pathologists, and parents who are familiar with the type of difficulties your son is experiencing. The problem, however, is that in our experience and as I am sure you would agree, there is rarely a simple fix in these situations. To be in a position to offer specific advice in your situation, we would need to learn a lot more about all of the factors that might be at play and also have capacity to help implement any suggestions or recommendations we might make. Our primary role here at the Centre is to conduct research aimed at improving the supports provided to Autistic children, adolescents, and adults, and our clinical work currently focuses on early diagnosis and supports in the early years.
Who is willing and able to help?
In terms of general advice, however, we have reflected on our experiences working with children, families, and teachers in similar situations. We suggest looking first at who is already willing and able to help solve the problem. Hopefully this includes your son’s teacher, any support staff in the school, and ideally the vice principal or principal. It is often necessary to have ‘buy in’ at these different levels, because part of solving the problem often involves some adjustments (even if just temporary) in the classroom (e.g., possibly allowing your son to do some of his work on the computer, putting in place or refining a buddy system for lunch times, incorporating some of your son’s interests into non-preferred activities). This group of people may also include any private therapists you are working with. If none are involved, you may want to consider seeking some support and advice through these channels.
Psychologists have expertise in understanding learning and behaviour. They can be very helpful in terms of identifying factors that may be contributing the problem, and put in place strategies for working through problems as they arise. For example, psychologists can be very good at helping children re-frame or shift the way they think about situations or activities that they find difficult or don’t enjoy (e.g., school) so that they can at least get through them with as few bumps along the way as possible. A speech pathologist with experience working in schools can be very good at putting in place practical supports to help support peer relationships, taking into account difficulties with expressive communication. When children find handwriting difficult or painful, we call on Occupational Therapists for advice as they specialise in this area. If children are not getting as much sleep as they need, there are paediatricians and clinics that specialise in finding solutions.
Again, we are very sorry we are only able to offer broad advice and appreciate that you may have already explored these options. Nevertheless, we hope that our thoughts may be of some help, and will certainly consider what role we can play as a Centre in progressing research into supports for school-age Autistic children, in light of your experience.
By Dr David Trembath
Published June 2013