Matthew, being a typical autistic child (if there is such a thing as a typical autistic child) who finds any social situation a mystifying and often terrifying experience. He is socially awkward and has no idea of how to cope. His answer is to go into mini-meltdown which makes him incredibly difficult to deal with.
Now, the school Matthew attends have been advised of this on numerous occasions as to how difficult Matthew finds it to interact socially with others. Right from the outset of his formal education, we agreed with the school that we’d take him home for lunch. We’ve both seen how Matthew reacts when put in a situation when he’s required to eat in the presence of non-family members. I can recall when we took him to the birthday party of one of my friends’ daughter at a soft play centre near where we live. Matthew was quite happy being perfectly autistic – being involved in situation with other playing, yet at the same time managing to be on his own. He is quite happy being on his own and playing by himself. Quite sad in a way to see him be so alone whilst surrounded by other children. The party was going well until it was time for the feed. Matthew need both mum and dad to sit with him. When the food was brought out, Matthew filled his plate neatly – everything must be kept separate. However, the situation soon got the better him, and he wouldn’t eat unless he was sitting on the floor under a table. To him, he couldn’t see others, so they couldn’t see him eat. As the mealtime got progressively noisier, the more agitated he got and ended up eating hardly anything.
We’ve mentioned it to the school at every review when Matthew staying for school lunches is raised. The consensus has been to delay even giving it a try. This term though they school have regularly pushed for Matthew to try staying for lunch. We’ve tried re-iterating that Matthew can’t cope with being in that situation, can’t cope with the noise. We’ve seen what that results in. Matthew has never been a good eater, but in a situation where we aren’t there to make him eat, he won’t eat.
But, eventually we agreed to give it a go. We agreed a day to try it out. Someone Matthew trusted would be there to help him. We put it to Matthew, who was initially receptive to the idea. We tried a packed lunch on him at home. unsurprisingly, he took so long to eat, and ate the sweets, and all but leaving the sandwich, which was only finally (partially) eaten after constant prompting from us. This is one of Matthew’s typical behaviours – eating needs to be reinforced every day. Mealtime can last up to 45 minutes – or more – as he needs constant reminding to keep eating. Given that he would only have 20 minutes to eat at school, as things stand, there is no hope he’d finish it. Anyway, when the day approached, Matthew had a panic attack at the thought of staying at school for lunch the day before. He was in tears and inconsolable at the thought of not coming home for lunch. He was getting so worked up that we thought he’d be sick.
We thought this year he’d like to stay at school for the Christmas lunch. It was all arranged, and Matthew seemed happy about it. But again, two days before, another panic attack occurred, and the deal was off. I can understand what the school are doing – they are trying to help him integrate with his class mates, but they don’t see what we do – the panic attacks, the storm of tears, the terror that Matthew experiences at the thought of not coming home at lunchtime.
Well, another attempt was made today. His teacher spoke to me today about Matthew staying for lunch. They’ll advise us when Matthew’s favourite classroom assistant would be in the dining area. I was sceptical that it would work, but agreed we’d raise it with Matthew. Guess what happened? As soon as I suggested it, it brought Matthew to the verge of panic. “No, no no. I want to come home.” He is genuinely scared of social gathering and just can’t cope.
We’ll see what happens when we get the days his classroom assistant will be in the dining area, but I can almost guarantee it won’t happen again. I’m not keen at the thought of putting Matthew through what will be an ordeal. He’s not comfortable around others, and can’t join in the general banter that would ensue. The school seems to think its just Matthew not being sure of what is involved. But, Matthew is autistic, and his brain just isn’t wired to comprehend being sociable. His brother starts school in August and we suspect he’ll want to stay. Matthew adores his brother, and we’re hoping Daniel can help Matthew through lunch at the school.
Well, this is part of having an autistic child. Needing to be at home each lunchtime means Matthew’s mum can’t go out between 11am and 1pm – making it impossible to do things like going into town, or even think about part-time work. One day that will maybe change, but I’ll not be holding my breath.