In this post, I'm re-visiting our experiences of D starting firstly in mainstream reception and then transferring to Special Needs (SN) School. Preparing for any child to start school can be a worry, when your child has SN, those worries can be magnified. These are our experiences and are designed to help…

To give a bit of background, D was in mainstream schooling from nursery aged three and a half, to three months short of her sixth birthday – so a term and a half into year one. D was diagnosed with autism when she was four and a half and it then took a year to get her statemented, at the second attempt. That year between diagnosis and statement was one of the longest and most stressful of my life. I had the feeling constantly that D was a number, a commodity – not an individual and that the “panel” who would be deciding my child’s education viewed her as a cost, a budget figure.

D struggled in mainstreams school, a lot. She had 26 hours a week 1:1 support from the moment she started in Reception – so before her statement came through. Her 1:1 Teaching Assistant (TA) was a wonderful, empathetic lady and we worked very closely together to try and ensure D enjoyed her days at school.

Unfortunately she didn’t. D was overwhelmed by the sizes of the classes, the noise, the bustle, and the excitement. One of her anxieties is that of having people too close to her. So there were times when she was not in class but doing separate work with her TA outside the classroom. Because her TA funding did not cover break times and lunchtimes, D would spend these holding onto a playground assistant’s hand.

I found it very hard to fathom that my daughter, who could count to 50 by the time she was three and could recognise letters aged two, was put onto the “slow learners” table, supposedly due to “her inability to read phonetically and her inability to form letters?” Plus delayed social skills?

D was never able to go down to class assemblies or participate in school plays – again her anxieties took over.

As soon as we had her statement through (on the second attempt), I was pushing for a place at the local SN school, we had already viewed it and knew it was the best place for D – but of course, every child is different. A parent of a boy with Down’s Syndrome in T’s class kept saying to me “stick with it, it’s D’s right to be there” but I knew it wasn’t for her.

So, these are my tips if your child is starting “big” school soon:

Get to know the staff - Establish a working relationship with your child’s 1:1, get basic ground rules as to what you expect from them and they from you. Use the home-school diary and email concerns/comments in - we had copious notes when D was in mainstream, the school goes by the "no news is good news" rule, but having an email address means you can pop anything across that you think needs raising.

School meeting prep - Be prepared for meetings with the school to be emotional – no matter how trivial the subject matter may seem – I cried in every meeting, which brings me on to… Write everything down in advance that you want to say. Always have a notebook in your bag so that if you’re at the checkout, for example, you can write it down before you forget.

Be flexible - the school will want your child to enjoy their day as much as you want them to.

Uniform - A uniform can present so many sensory issues with "scratchy" material, buttons and zips. If you have a daughter like me, you might be concerned about her wearing a dress, especially if she has a tendency to roll about the floor. Practice with your child zipping and unzipping, buttoning and un-buttoning. If zips prove too much, think about trousers/shorts with elasticated waists and for a girl, consider leggings under a school dress or pinafore or gym leggings (which D wears, they are thicker than usual leggings and aren't see through at all). If a woolly cardigan or jumper isn't a possibility, how about a plain sweatshirt in the school colours.

If your child can't tie shoelaces, there are Velcro school shoe options, similarly gym plimsolls from Clarks.  D wears Skechers as they have no laces and are very comfy, almost trainer-like in a navy blue. 

Playtime - This can be tricky for a special needs child - noisy and overwhelming, usually when a 1:1 isn't around and I'd hear that D would cling onto playground staff for reassurance. There's no easy answer for this, or for not being included in play dates or parties. Remind yourself that the other parents are missing out on getting to know a very individual child! 

Lunchtime - this can be fraught with anxieties due to the amount of people in a school hall and the sensory issues. If you find that your child isn't eating at lunchtime, suggest that they be allowed to either sit somewhere quieter with a TA or have them home for lunch if you live close enough. T doesn't eat lunch at all, which worried me at first, we compromise by him having a big breakfast (toast and cereal) and then his tea is ready as soon as he gets home. This option is easier than clearing out uneaten food from his school bag!

Transport - If your child travels by transport, stand in the same place every day so they see you as they descend the school bus. Make a big, huge smile when you see them and they see you, you're their constant in their life and who they've been waiting to see. But both D and T tend to mask their emotions whilst they're at school and it's always very clear from their faces if they're not happy.  

Finally, try and relax whilst they're at school, I know it's hard not to worry but have a coffee date or catch up on a TV programme or do something you haven't been able to for ages - but keep that phone close by!

Good luck if your child is starting school next week.

Read more of Jeannette's Blogs at Autismmumma