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"We don't want pity. We want you to notice." A message to school parents about my autistic child.

Kindergarten began one month ago, and my child is already feeling too anxious to go.

School refusal is an issue many families face at some stage, but for an autistic child, it presents a more complicated set of problems that are hard to resolve.

An autistic child lives with a heightened sense of anxiety, and being around lots of new people, while following a schedule set by an educator, is extremely difficult.

Starting kindergarten is a rite of passage for children and their families. Some families can choose a school based on location, facilities or personal experience. For other families, there are fewer choices, either due to financial circumstances or a child’s learning profile.

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When we began kindergarten this year, I lost count of the comments made that dismissed my feelings and concerns about the road we faced. Most people assume our child wants to go and because he is verbal, that he will have no issues participating in education.

It’s often a surprise to people to learn he is at high risk of needing to be homeschooled. Accessing education can be difficult for autistic children and their families.

It isn’t as simple as choosing the local school, or deciding on a private school because we went there. Without an intellectual disability and having a reasonable amount of language and communication skill (though highly variable), autistic children frequently miss out on funding for additional support in public schools. And highly anxious children are often disruptive due to the sensory elements of a school environment.

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The hardest part isn’t navigating the system, advocating for him with teachers or preparing him for each day. The most challenging part is when other parents, while well-meaning, dismiss our concerns by saying “my kid does that.”

All children develop on different timelines; children with autism, ADHD or other developmental differences have greater difficulty communicating or playing with their peers. They have lots of strengths and challenges, and it’s more difficult for them to attend, participate and thrive.

Our child doesn’t want to feel different; we want him to feel accepted. But part of acceptance is acknowledgement. Dismissing his genuine challenges and the ways he has to build essential skills to learn and cope with things other children find easy, is infuriating and hurtful. When someone dismisses our experiences, it’s as if they are saying we imagine our world to be different.

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It’s essential to move beyond awareness; our children need acceptance and understanding. All children have needs, and autistic children need specific accommodations in classrooms so they can participate.

We don’t need to be reassured. We don’t need to hear our children are too disruptive and should stay home.

Please listen and empathise with us, acknowledge our children so we can build an inclusive education environment. Through inclusive education, we can teach our children to be accepting of difference. To understand. To appreciate the unique talents of each person and help them thrive.

If your child happily goes to school, attends all day and learns fairly quickly – acknowledge this blessing. Please know that other families face ongoing challenges for their child to attend. For many of those families, being there and staying calm is the first goal.

Families like ours cannot even contemplate what our children might hope to learn because getting through that first step can seem impossible. We are working hard, and so are the educators, to help our children – we don’t want pity. We want you to notice. We need to be part of the school community.

Carla is a freelance writer, mum of two autistic boys, a nature lover and married to her best friend. She loves to write about parenting, family relationships, mindfulness and minimalism.

Feature image: Getty.

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