I am thankful that we live in a time where it is generally believed that integration and inclusion for people with special needs is important. This means little boys like Noah should be recognised as part of the community like everybody else, should be on the local football team, should go to the same school as his neighbours and friends and in essence be treated just like all the other kids.
Since Noah was born, I have considered inclusion in our community as one of our top priorities for him. It will give him opportunity, friendships and support. Of course it’s easy to be up on the soapbox talking about inclusion when your child is in preschool, happily playing along with all the other kids his age. Kids of that age are creative, accepting. They find mutual interests, communication comes in many forms and it is an atmosphere of play.
At this point in our journey as we face Noah starting school, I am more aware of what inclusion really means. We have to make choices for him that will set him out on a journey to make friends, fit in and become part of the bigger community around us. Because Noah has been assessed as having a mild intellectual disability, our plan is to send him to our local mainstream school, the school his sister attends, the school his friends in the neighbourhood attend and the schools the locals go to. Up to this point, this seemed like a straightforward plan.
Turns out however that integration is not that easy. The challenge of course is that school is not only about academic achievement. We are willing to put in the long hours to get homework done, speech, writing, reading, letters and words to the best level we can. We will high five his every achievement and we will encourage and support in all his struggles. But school is also very much about social relationships and friendships.
I can’t stop thinking about an incident that happened the other day. I was collecting Noah from preschool and he happened to be leaving at the same time as two other little boys from his class. They were so excited to be leaving together, all three of them laughing excitedly. They started to run. Running towards the schoolyard to get a few minutes of play in before they had to go home. Within a minute or two, Noah had fallen behind. He was running so fast, breathing with determination and pushing himself as fast as he possibly could but no matter how hard he pushed, he could not catch up with the others. He tried to run faster. He tried to shout out their names but in his haste, he fell. He landed on the ground and started to cry and stomp his foot in frustration. He was not crying because he hurt himself. He was crying because he was upset with himself. He knew that no matter how hard he pushed, how hard he tried, his muscles were not strong enough to carry him as fast as the other boys.
It’s very hard to watch your little boy try so hard, give it everything he has and still he comes last. I felt helpless and sad for him. His friends had not done anything wrong, they were just running at their own pace but I know that this is a scenario that will replay many times and it gets harder as he gets older. I know from friends who are further on in the school experience how difficult it can get when our kids are excluded from playdates, no longer invited to birthday parties and are misunderstood.
Of course I could send Noah to a special needs school where he would be surrounded by support, compassion and lots of other children at his level, his speed and his ability. There are some wonderful schools for children with intellectual disabilities.
Instead my intention is to send him to a school where I will fight everyday to get him the resources he needs. We will work tirelessly to ensure he fits in, can keep up and can make friends. He will work and push himself hard just to meet our expectations. We will manage the tears and the frustrations and just maybe he will reach second class, sixth class, secondary school, maybe even Leaving Cert, it happens right??.
I question my motives from time to time and I hope that my quest for inclusion does not isolate my precious little boy. I worry that I will not be able to make peace with the fact that he will have to work harder then everybody else but despite his efforts still may not be seen as part of the team, one of the gang or may come last.
But throughout our journey so far, Noah has continued to surprise us. Maybe he will tackle his school journey like he tackles everything else, with strength, determination and willpower and maybe he will have lots of supportive friends to share his journey.
In reality, it is only people who are concerned about inclusion who spend any time thinking about it. Before I had Noah, I did not think about it either. But beside every child with special needs there are loving parents who worry every day about their child fitting in. Behind closed doors there are army bootcamp levels of activity to help with homework, communication, physical strength to help our children to keep up. There are hurtful tremors of disappointment and distress when despite all our, and ultimately our children’s efforts, it does not work out.
This is why I write. I hope that by sharing experiences, people who have not thought about it before might think about it now. Maybe there is a family or a child with special needs in your community, your school or your child’s class. I hope that by giving some insight to my journey, you might think about theirs.
It is incredibly rewarding to be Noah’s mum, he brings us more love and more joy then I could ever have imagined. He is strong, hard working and determined. But the journey can also be very difficult. I suppose like any adventure, you cannot get the highs without the lows and we hope that the decisions we make, the people we surround ourselves with and the never ending love we have for our children will be enough!