Christian schools and Autism - there's good news

“Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.” Psalm 127:3 

As the parent of a daughter living with disabilities, can I point out that there is no asterisk in that verse from Psalm 127. There is no clause saying only certain sorts of children are a blessing …

A Christian school in Australia has been taken to court by the family of a child living with autism, who was expelled in year two. It’s a sad story. A family is rejected by a Christian community – and a school faces a court case.

I can tell a happier one.

But even my one starts sad. I remember being ushered into a very elaborate office in the Victorian mansion that houses a certain school. It was the sort of room designed to intimidate (or impress) perspective parents. When the person discussing enrolling our daughter, Hannah, started to ask for full details of her disabilities in front of her, I fled with Hannah to a playground over the road. I left my wife to front the questions.

But what came later was worse. That particular school refused to tell us if our child could be enrolled or not. This went on for some months. This was puzzling at the time but thinking about it later, it was most likely that the school thought we might sue them. And I have heard similar stories about other families.

It took a high-level intervention – with help from another school – to get the answer that we should “explore other possibilities”.

We were lucky we got an answer; others don’t.

One of the gifts of having a child with a disability is learning how to pray, hard.

This story is very happy from here, because we found a very warm welcome at Meriden School in Strathfield, in Sydney’s inner western suburbs. It is a school that has very high academic results in the HSC (year 12 exams) yet went out of their way to welcome a child living with an intellectual disability and autism.

Meriden linked with ASPECT (Autism Australia), and quickly grasped the idea that the school would have to change so Hannah could grow and change.

Unlike the first school, Meriden does not have a disability program, but teachers were sent on special courses to learn about managing a child living with autism. Classroom spaces were arranged so our daughter could have time out when she needed it.

Year three was especially rough, and it could take us two hours to get from the car into school. We quickly found just where to park so the whole suburb would not witness the struggle with the school uniform.

We’ll probably never know all the effort that Meriden made to make our family welcome.

Inevitably, Hannah was teased, but I was moved by the response of other parents. They would make their girl apologise – and it was as though we became a kind of blessing, helping families teach their children about diversity. Throughout all the time we were part of the school community I can’t recall a single time we felt singled out, or looked down upon by any parent or teachers.

Every parent’s journey with a child living with disability will be different.

For high school, we found Danebank (in Sydney suburb Hurstville), a school which generously supports a “life skills” unit. This was another happy place where rather than bumping along the bottom of a mainstreamed classroom, my daughter was taught a special curriculum. I suspect it was the only classroom in the senior school with a rabbit.

During this time I had a column in the Sydney Anglican magazine Southern Cross and one month I cheekily proposed that if the Anglican schools wanted to be truly Christian, rather than offering scholarships to those children who would boost the academic or sporting prowess of the school, they should offer a scholarship to students with a disability.

I think Danebank were thinking of doing it anyway, but they started a scholarship for the Life Skills girls soon after.

I wrote above that being a parent of a child living with a disability impels you to prayer. I have a happy adult daughter, and Meriden and Danebank were answers to prayer.

Every parent’s journey with a child living with disability will be different. Yet the story of the court case concerning the child expelled in year two appears to have started on the school bus.

That is not surprising: any family with an autistic member knows that “transitions” – moving from one environment to another – is a time of stress. We have lots of family stories of times we worried “about the wheels coming off”. It is sad that trouble on the school bus led to an expulsion. Something like that could have happened to us – but we know that Danebank and Meriden always were trying really hard to make sure that it never happened.

*Hannah has given me permission to tell her story.

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