Earlier this week I was in my office, head down in papers, when I was struck by the silence. Where was everyone? It took a moment for me to realise that the schools had finished for summer and that colleagues with children were taking annual leave. Dylan left school just a year ago; how quickly, I thought to myself, I had lost the rhythms of the school year.
Last week I listened to an academic on the radio arguing that school holidays should be spread more evenly across the year because the free meals provided by schools are critical for some families; new research indicates that children from the poorest backgrounds may not get enough to eat during the long summer holiday. Educational arguments for adjusting school holidays have also been made; pupil regression, it is suggested, would be lessened if the summer break was shorter.
For autistic children, for whom routine and structure are key, the summer holiday can also be challenging. Dylan was lucky enough to attend a National Autistic Society school where the calendar had been designed to take this into account; holidays were spread across the year so that pupils did not have a long break from school. So while the vast majority of schools in England are already closed for the summer, this time last year Dylan’s final school year had not yet ended.
It doesn’t surprise me that an adjustment to the school year for autistic children could benefit children more generally; it is often noted that good practice for pupils with Special Educational Needs is good practice for all. As Dylan’s school was unique in its approach, however, his alternative calendar was not without problems; having children whose school holidays were different presented challenges when taking vacations, for example, and there were significant implications for me as a working mother.
If you are a parent of a disabled child school holidays can be difficult, especially if you are single. Working in the education sector I am fortunate to be able to take leave during the summer. School holidays at other times of year, however, were always problematic for me; half term break can be tricky for any working parent but a two week half term holiday (to allow for Dylan’s shorter summer) was a nightmare. In the silence of the office this week I remembered how difficult it had been to manage school holidays; for all the difficulties I had encountered since Dylan left school, I was glad that I no longer faced that particular challenge.
Part of the challenge for working parents of disabled children is the lack of childcare. Apart from attending a play scheme organised by a parent support group, Dylan was looked after in the home by my mother or a childminder during holidays. There were no camps, social organisations or summer activities which Dylan could attend. My experience may not be atypical; a 2013 survey of summer holiday childcare for disabled children (reported in Waving Not Drowning, a newsletter for carers and parents of disabled children who work or wish to work) found that most parents used care provided by a friend or family member. At the start of the summer holidays many families reported that they had yet to find care or had only tentative arrangements for the summer:
What resonates from the responses is how piecemeal, precarious, expensive and stressful cobbling together the summer provision is for many parents of disabled children. (Waving not Drowning, Autumn 2013)
The survey reported cases of parents having to leave their jobs because of summer care difficulties as well as changing hours, taking unpaid leave and working from home. There were also reports of family and mental health breakdown as a result of the stress of trying to arrange summer childcare. The Waving not Drowning report concludes:
Clearly lots of difficult, individual compromises are being made to survive the challenging summer holiday period and at considerable expense.
The WND survey of summer childcare focuses on the needs of the parents of disabled children. Appropriate child care is not only in the interests of parents, however; the home is not an easy environment for children who require specialist provision. I don’t have rebus symbols and timetables displayed around the house (though there are some). I haven’t got a ball pool, snoezelen, playground or even a garden. The home has flashpoints and hazards. Spending three or four weeks in this environment during the summer is not ideal for Dylan.
In the absence of appropriate holiday provision, however, parents of autistic children and young adults do the best they can to manage the summer holidays. When my children were small I would plan a diet of summer activities, balancing days aimed at my daughter’s interests with days based on Dylan’s needs. This was challenging but it was key to managing the school holidays. When my daughter outgrew my summer schedules I went on designing them for Dylan. Because Dylan’s interests are, for the most part, the same now as when he and my daughter were young, I have spent nearly 20 years doing the sorts of things parents usually get to do only briefly; my summers are still full of zoos, adventure playgrounds, museums, parks and sandcastles.
My summer schedules always included a mix of the tried and tested and the new. Trips that proved particularly popular made a repeat appearance the following year. Sometimes there was a theme; in 2011 for example the focus was ‘caves’ (I’d noticed Dylan was attracted by the darkness and acoustics). That summer the schedule included Cresswell Crags, Castleton and a visit to a lead mine.
Such schedules helped Dylan to manage a period of time which he would otherwise have found challenging. As well as benefitting Dylan, however, they supported me; I could get up in the morning, check the schedule and get on with the day. I found this helpful; no matter how difficult the previous day may have been, the schedule kept me focused. This is important given that, living with autism, there will always be days which challenge. It is easy in the aftermath of a difficult experience to stay home rather than access the community. However, when falling off a bicycle you have to get back on and a summer schedule enabled me to do this; it was a scaffold for Dylan and a safety net for me.
A schedule can only ever be aspirational however: in the last three summers there were days which didn’t happen. Some of the aborted activities were pulled through to the following year (and sometimes still didn’t happen). I’m the sort of person who makes lists but I know that sometimes I have to be flexible and let them go; a summer schedule must never become a tyrant.
This year I am working hard at letting go. If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know that Dylan has been unsettled recently. Everyone involved in his care is trying to work out what is triggering Dylan’s behaviour but as yet we have not been able to fathom it. As Dylan is no longer at school there is no need for a summer schedule this year (his day centre is open all year). Because he has been so unsettled, however, I thought it might help to do some of the things we have done in the past. I therefore drew up a plan for Dylan which included some time at his day centre, some time with me and a summer holiday. Dylan’s social worker expressed concern about my plans to support Dylan alone and to travel to France but I was optimistic; I will get Dylan on a summer schedule, I thought to myself; that will settle him.
This week, however, I have accepted that it isn’t wise to travel this summer and have cancelled our holiday; how short-lived my joy at last year’s trip to France turned out to be (you can read about that here). I should only ever make plans I am prepared to break, I tell myself. So I have redrafted the summer schedule to include some less ambitious days at the seaside; there will, hopefully, be other holidays in France. Who knows, though, what the future holds: these recent events remind me to live each opportunity as if it is the last (though on a schedule, naturally).
Waving Not Drowning: Newsletter (Issue 37, Autumn 2013)
All images taken by Liz (the seaside photographs taken while on holiday in Brittany, August 2013).