Our experiences with kindergartens and day care centres had taught us that there was no way our kids could start their primary school education by going to regular, mainstream schools.
First, there was the pool with the day care centre. In Australia, pools are as common as Canada's skating rinks, America's baseball diamonds and Britain's, I don't know, coal mines: there's one in every suburb, and they are a central pillar of the community. This particular pool, the Brunswick pool, supplied swimming/gymming mothers with a short-term babysitting service for a surprisingly small fee. The first time Anne tried it, Rémi was just a twinkle in my eye and Gaston was a toddler. She left him, swam 1 km (that's 1 mile, for my American readers), and came back to find Gaston had been crying the entire time she was gone, clutching/sucking onto a blue star toy. It took Gaston the rest of the day to get over the emotional trauma.
(As an aside, it turns out Gaston had an obsession with blue stars which would last for a couple more years. As an aside to my aside, Rémi had a similar obsession with green rectangles which would extend to an obsession with Henry the Big Green Engine and other green engines from "Thomas".)
Second, there were the only two French kindergartens in town. Their mere existence is due to the fact that, in Melbourne, speaking French is seen to be very posh and Melbourne's richer suburbs are full of posh but not-too-bright parents who think their children will magically pick up a foreign language if they suffer through a couple of hours of foreign language kindergarten every week. So Anne, who doesn't drive, would somehow drag the kids across the tracks several times a week to these posh suburb kindergartens, so that Gaston (and eventually Rémi) could attend a school where most of the goings on are in French. Which was handy because, as if being autistic wasn't bad enough, our kids are exposed to both languages every day (mostly French). Finding an educational environment for them in their mother tongue would surely benefit them.
Well, neither school coped particularly well with having an autistic kid in the group. They insisted we pay someone out of pocket to assist our own kid in the school. And because we could only afford unreliable uni students, Anne and the boys actually got turned away from the school on more than one occasion when the aide failed to show up. Both schools made every effort to make our lives difficult, and every one (them and us) was relieved when my kids outgrew the schools.
Third, there was The Neighbourhood House, a local community centre which provided a day care which could be best described as a kindergarten program: it was a couple of hours each week. Here was one of the best places for our boys: the teacher had some experience working with autistic kids. She engaged with Gaston, and did special things just for him. For example, she had set aside a notebook for him, where she would draw or paste a summary of what he'd done that day or what song they sang in class. Anne and I could then read the book to him at night, singing the songs or reminding him what he'd done. Gaston showed quite a bit of progress in that school. And we weren't the only ones who enjoyed the benefits: another autistic kid, Michael (whose mother would become Anne's best friend) was making full use of this great program as well.
One of the parents complained that Michael had been aggressive with her child. She made such a fuss about it, that The Neighbourhood House had to set a new rule that there was only one handicapped kid allowed in any particular class. So Rémi had to wait to get in (he eventually did, and progressed as a result). And so it goes: if you do find a good place that copes well with autistic children, then eventually some other parents will cause difficulties.
Finally, there was our local kindergarten. When Gaston was about to turn five, we were able to send him to a proper, government-funded, local kindergarten. Up until this point, we've been experimenting with various day care facilities and out-of-pocket programs. There were three sessions a week, including one half-day session. We felt obliged to pay someone to accompany him, but eventually the school decided that they should pay for our aide. And they did!
This was the closest experience Gaston had to going to a regular school with regular kids. Rémi would go the following year. The aides were great: they were the same people we had hired to come to our house and do some ABA therapy on Saturdays, so they had built up trusting relationships with the boys before their first day of kindy had even started. As an added bonus, the kindergarten staff knew all about autism: they had taught Michael the year before Gaston, there was another autistic kid in G's class, and I think they've dealt with other ones before.
Nevertheless, at almost six years of age, Gaston could barely talk or sit still. Rémi was worse: he was compliant, but also so completely passive that it would take a miracle to make him break out of his shell. As Gaston started getting close to school age, we had to overcome our fears of sending our kids to "special" school. I'm not sure how, but we soon learned about Western Autistic School--perhaps through talking to Michael's mother--a school which caters for all the autistic kids in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
Autism is perfectly normal at this school. The classes are small. There are onsite speech and occupational therapists, and psychologists. Some of the staff have been working with autistic kids for thirty years. I could go on about how great this school is, but I think it would be best to leave it as the topic of another blog post. (note: I did write that post in February 2011. The link is here: http://lebelinoz.blogspot.com/2011/02/western-autistic-school.html)