Sam’s Case study – ex-Meath pupil (Interview April 2012)
Looking back, Sam’s Mum Tess feels very lucky because they had a childminder who spotted that Sam wasn’t responding to words. When Sam was two, she asked Tess to get Sam’s hearing checked and suspected he may be autistic. Sure enough, by the age of three Sam was diagnosed with a speech disorder and an autistic spectrum disorder which means he has difficulties with social use of language.
When Sam was 3 years old the Local Education Authority advised that Sam should go to a local mainstream school with a special needs class attached. He would get support from a speech and language therapist but Sam’s parents didn’t feel this was right for Sam because he needed more intense support for his communication needs. After advice and their own research, they discovered Meath School and they embarked on a process to prove to the LEA, through reports from specialists that Sam’s needs were complex enough to warrant a place at the school. Sam began at Meath in the term he turned five years old.
At age 5, Sam had very little verbal communication and he could only handle one or two instructions at most. He couldn’t put sentences together at all. He had little idea about social communication; he was reluctant to join in, wouldn’t answer a phone or a door and couldn’t engage anyone in conversation. Later, aged 9, Sam was diagnosed with dyslexia which added more complexity to learning to read and write. Change wasn’t easy for Sam when he was younger as he used to find it complex and scary.
When Sam started at Meath, the staff went back to ‘the beginning’ with him. They started with pictures of basic emotions, to show Sam what ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ faces looked like and how he should respond to his emotions. They taught him the alphabet and he learnt language in small incremental steps. Sam’s parents took instructions home to practice these skills with him. For instance, they were encouraged to hold his face in their hands to encourage him to look at their faces when they spoke to him, and picture flash cards customized for Sam’s abilities.
Tess says “Within the first year at Meath, Sam started to do basic reading and managed to put sentences together. It was truly amazing to watch him progress to a language we could all understand. Meath was a wonderful school with a secure environment and the staff built up the children’s speech and language skills and their confidence. They did horse riding for the disabled and Challengers multi-sensory play area and these activities gave Sam the courage to try new things. The class sizes were small and the children got to know each other very well. We had children come to us to play with Sam and he would be invited to the other pupils’ birthday parties. Socialising with the other children was a way of fitting into the world. Without language, Sam would have been even more isolated.”
As Sam’s understanding and verbal skills grew, he would understand social situations a lot better and began to learn an understanding of his behaviour on other people.
Sam is now 17 and has made the transition to More House Secondary School, a school for boys who would struggle in a mainstream environment. Going to secondary school was scary but there was a lot of support during the transition from both Meath and his new school. Sam says “Sometimes it is difficult with my peer group. I can talk to them but sometimes I find them immature; some of the things they want to do, I don’t want to.
I feel socially ‘normal’ now and I don’t find social situations as difficult as I did. I sometimes see other people my age with difficulties that often don’t progress or try as hard in social situations and they find they do not have a wide range of things to talk about. I am now of an age where I can have a rational view of where I have come from. My difficulties do not define me, so I don’t talk openly about them to people generally.”
Sam reflects on his time at Meath with happy memories: “I remember it being a homely school. I felt secure there and happy in the environment. We had special lessons in how to make friends and begin conversations. I made friends at school after about a year or so and as time progressed, I made more friends. When I was little, it felt really natural for me to not socialise with others but looking back, I realise now I didn’t really talk to many people. I can definitely see a steady progression at different stages of my life. But this is only because I accepted I have difficulties and I work at them.”
Sam has really worked hard to be able to step out of his comfort zone even when he didn’t always feel at ease. But he has always wanted to achieve his goals. He qualified as a lifeguard on a course in the summer in spite of being out of his comfort zone. He is now confident with his language abilities and is now armed with the tools for an exciting future with an ambition to become a writer after going to university
Tess says it is crucial to get help in the early years. She advises parents to follow their instincts and push to get the right assessments done. “If children get the help they need, there is a richer adult life for them after their school career. Meath offers hope to parents, which is a very powerful concept.”
Sam says “My advice to anyone who has difficulties would be to push yourself – at a comfortable pace of course. Always aim higher and don’t panic if you find it difficult. Just keep going until you are where you want to be.”