This post for Autism Acceptance Month is written by Dani Hunter.
Dani Hunter is a secondary school teacher who is currently taking a career break to spend time with her young family. She has two children; a son aged 5 and a daughter aged 2. In 2021, her son was diagnosed as Autistic and is also non-verbal. Dani, along side her teacher husband, is keen to promote the reality of being a parent to an Autistic child as well as to promote the positivity and quash the misconceptions that often accompany it.
In the beginning…
In October 2016, our beautiful nine-pound little ginger was born. After a rocky start due to undiagnosed allergies (that’s a whole other blog!), our little boy was happy and thriving.
S was about one year old when we started to notice a few things that weren’t quite as we thought they should be. We were repeatedly told by professionals that “we should give it time” and “all children develop at different rates”, but by the time S turned two, we spoke with our Health Visitor and insisted there was something going on. S still didn’t speak, no “mama” or “dada”, very little eye contact, and he had unusual ways of playing, to name but a few obvious atypical traits.
Our first referral was to a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT). This is where our journey really began. Our therapist was incredible and was 100% on our side at all times. When she gently suggested the possibility of Autism, we were just so relieved that someone else was finally singing from our hymn sheet.
When S started at our local preschool at the age of three, staff there soon saw that he would require additional support. With our enthusiastic agreement, they applied to the Integrated Disability Service (IDS) for support. Our IDS support worker was equally as magical as our SaLT and funded a 1:1 assistant for S at preschool.
With the help, support and tremendous effort from these three women, we were on track to get an ASD assessment as well as an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) for S. Covid-19 put a real hold on things but by the time S finished preschool, he had both a diagnosis of ASD and a detailed EHCP.
I had always imagined my son attending our local mainstream school. He went to the preschool next door so it was an obvious progression. For reasons I won’t go into now, it became increasingly apparent that this might not be the best place for S.
I’ll be honest, I did not want S going to a SEN school: mainstream will work, we thought, he’ll get a TA, he will have friends from preschool who understand and accept him. It took a long time, longer for me than for my husband, to come to terms with my good-intentioned but misplaced beliefs. Mainstream wasn’t going to work for S. Even with a TA, we feared he would not have the support and specialist input he needed. The wonderful little friends he had were my dream. They still are wonderful humans, as are their kind and supportive parents, but that wasn’t going to last. S prefers playing “independently”; his classmates would soon move on and develop friendships with their peers, as they should. S can’t contribute so would be left behind and left out.
We visited our local SEN school, where we had been advised that there was a place for S. It wasn’t until we took S for a visit where we really saw the magic that happens in these schools. S was so happy, comfortable and cared for that we had to carry him out – he didn’t want to leave!
For us, specialist provision was without doubt the best, yet hardest, decision we have made. To see our son thriving, developing, happier, calmer; it’s all any of us want for our children.
Where we are now
S is happily halfway through Reception year at our local SEN school. I am a very active member of the school’s parents’ association. I want to do whatever I can to make my son’s amazing school even better.
My husband proudly wears his “my child is Autistic” lanyard whenever we go out as a family; I used to wonder what people thought but the only things we have noticed have been positive. I asked my husband what the main reason was for wearing the lanyard and his response was that any little thing that made things easier for S and gave him a little bit more compassion and understanding from others was very much worth it. I felt a bit odd “advertising” my son’s Autism at the start, but no longer. My husband was right. From builders noticing and subtly halting their loud drilling work until we passed to strangers striking up conversations about their experiences with Autism or to ask us about our son, it has all been positive.
I pretend not to care what people think of his funny noises, peculiarities or the occasional public meltdown, but deep down, I do care. I don’t want people staring or judging but I’ve got to be realistic. They will always watch and judge but that’s life. We are so proud of our non-verbal Autistic son and a tut or an eye roll from a passer-by will never change that.
Some people in our lives know about our son’s diagnosis, others don’t. I post photos on my social media. S isn’t always smiling or looking at the camera but I don’t feel the need to explain. Those people in our lives who do know never question it and, I’ll be honest, I’m just not that bothered about the rest! The eagle-eyed out there may spot the lanyard but it has never been mentioned.
April is Autism Awareness Month. This year it has been renamed Autism Acceptance Month. People are aware of Autism but it’s high time people start accepting it more. By making small changes or accommodations, it could truly improve the lives, enjoyment and mental health of Autistic people and their families.
This April, I am going to be more publicly open about our family and Autism. The only way to get more people to be more accepting is to talk about it and open ourselves up to questions.
My husband and I are both teachers so one may think that we would be perfectly placed to know all about SEN. Only by being parents of an Autistic child do we truly know just what a battle and a blessing it can be. The saying is true: everyone really is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but the more we talk, share, learn, ask and accept Autism, the better the world will become for everyone.