Learning from home and using online education can provide a safe haven for children who are bullied at school. Special Children talked to one mother about the solutions she found for her autistic son

Despite all she’s been through, Catherine Jones remains surprisingly upbeat. A 47-year-old single mother of two sons, she has faced the usual obstacles while raising her family. But in Catherine’s case there was always an added difficulty: Michael, her elder son, aged 15, is autistic and hates school so much that four years ago he came close to killing himself. Today, however, he is in Year 11, preparing to take his GCSEs and talking enthusiastically about his plans for post-16 study. It is an amazing transformation – and a success story that Catherine is keen to share.

She suspected that Michael might be autistic from very early on. ‘I used to run a mother and toddler group and I noticed his distinct lack of social skills, [his habit of] lining things up in order, avoidance of eye contact, all the classic things,’ she explains. Michael was referred to a paediatrician before his second birthday, but Catherine was told that his tantrums and behaviour were a result of his delayed speech and that with regular therapy the problems would resolve themselves. Catherine dutifully took Michael to speech and language therapy sessions until he started infant school. But far from things getting better, they got worse.

‘He was just beside himself with what I thought at the time was probably separation anxiety, being away from me and his normal routine. He would walk round and round the classroom in circles and go and sit under the tables and try to hide in the cupboards.’ Luckily, Michael’s school noticed his behaviour very quickly and within weeks Catherine had her suspicions confirmed. Michael was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and the process of getting him a statement of special educational needs began. ‘I think the paediatricians had suspected that themselves,’ she now says. ‘But it’s not a label they put on kids lightly.’

Despite Michael’s diagnosis, Catherine still did not know how autism would affect his day-to-day life. ‘At that stage I knew he was bright,’ she says. ‘I knew he had a very highly developed artistic talent. At the age of three he had his own drawing table and he used to draw obsessively. I knew there was a real talent there.’

While she describes Michael’s initial school as ‘super’, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t equipped to deal with his condition. Regular behaviour management programmes, such as reward charts, meant nothing to him. At the age of six he was already claiming to be ill rather than go to school. Catherine had to carry him kicking and screaming to school every day. At the school gates, she handed him over to the headteacher, who wasn’t prepared to let any other member of staff suffer the bruises and scratches caused by Michael’s struggling.

In desperation Catherine approached the local authority, which suggested she look at other schools. She came across a school with a specialist communication disorders unit. Why did she prefer this option to a unit for children with autistic spectrum disorders?

‘Units for autistic kids is that they rarely cater for children without moderate learning difficulties (MLD),’ she explains. ‘They are not aimed at the brighter, more able autistic child. All the units I looked at were either for kids that really were very severely autistic, locked up in their own world, or they had MLD. I couldn’t find anything that I thought was actually suitable.’ For similar reasons, she rejected the idea of sending Michael to a special school. She and Michael both felt that he had little in common with children with other conditions.

As there wasn’t a place in the specialist unit available immediately, Catherine took a risk and moved both of her sons to the school so that Michael would be on roll when a place came up. The move appeared to work. ‘I saw a huge change in him. I would say in the last half term of Year 2 he was probably the happiest I had ever seen him in school,’ she says. She attributes this largely to his teacher and to the support the unit gave him when he was finally able to start there the following September. There were just nine children in the unit with a teacher in charge and two teaching assistants. Michael started each day in the unit, but would spend as much time as possible in the main school. Everything seemed to be going well. But then, as Michael got older, the bullying started.

Looking back on this period, Catherine seems philosophical about what happened next. She points out that children are quick to spot when a child is different and can be remorseless in picking on anyone who stands out. Michael’s condition didn’t help. ‘It’s a very strange disorder because Michael in many ways doesn’t care what people think of him; he is very much his own person. However, when someone is constantly telling you that you are stupid, you are a freak – all manner of things he was called…’

As transfer to secondary school approached, the name-calling got worse. Michael’s tormentors told him he wouldn’t be able to cope with the move, that he was stupid and certain to fail. According to Catherine it was in that final year that he became most unhappy. ‘He decided that as far as he was concerned the answer to this particular problem was to come out of the unit,’ she explains. ‘There was a lot of discussion and we decided we would let him try that.’ But without the support he needed, Michael floundered. ‘Really that’s when things went down hill,’ Catherine recalls.

In September 2004, Michael started secondary school. For the first few days, Catherine was ‘absolutely astonished’ at how well the transfer seemed to be working. ‘I was all set for absolute horror – tantrums and tears and goodness knows what.’ But Michael’s mood was very positive. He was determined to manage without a teaching assistant and insisted that any support he received should be discreet. Within a couple of weeks, however, the bullying started again.

Catherine approached the school, but says she was told that its bullying policy was that the victim should face down the perpetrators. It was an approach she didn’t personally agree with, but regardless of this she felt it wouldn’t work in situations where, like Michael, the victim was autistic. ‘To cut a long story short, they said that they couldn’t do a great deal to protect Michael unless he was really going to come back under the special needs umbrella and have major support,’ Catherine explains. ‘In other words, someone shadowing him.’

While they were considering this option, the situation reached breaking point. Michael was getting increasingly unhappy and was becoming more adamant that he would not go to school. Then one day he came home in what Catherine describes as ‘an absolutely foul mood.’ She rang the school the following morning and asked them to look into what might have sparked this behaviour. It transpired that Michael had been found walking in the middle of a busy road near the school with the clear intention of being knocked down, and had been brought back to school by a police officer.

Catherine recalls that she was sufficiently upset and shocked to tell the school there and then that Michael wouldn’t be coming back. She felt the school hadn’t dealt with the bullying and that it hadn’t shown sufficient concern about this latest incident. The local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS), which was already aware of Michael’s situation, supported her action and sent out a psychiatrist to make a home visit. Six weeks into his first term, Michael was withdrawn from school.

Catherine says that Michael remained disturbed for some time, but her determination not to send him back to school stirred the relevant agencies into action: ‘All the wheels seemed to be set in motion. We got the local authority, the SEN officers, the welfare officers, psychologists, psychiatrists… all of a sudden it was a round of meetings, assessments and home visits.’ Six months later Michael was offered a home tutor for five hours a week. The tutor was handpicked and over time she formed a strong rapport with Michael. With the pressure taken away, Michael began to feel more in control of his life. Unfortunately, after a couple of years, with his GCSEs getting ever closer, Michael needed more appropriate teaching. It was back to the drawing board.

For Catherine, as a single mother and a largely housebound full-time carer, private education or a residential placement in a specialist school was out of the question. The other possibility was for her to teach Michael herself. However, this would have meant an end to local authority support and she feared it might jeopardise her bond with Michael.

To Catherine’s relief, her local authority suggested online schooling, which Michael began in September 2007 at the start of Year 10. Accipio Learning provides interactive online learning for secondary age pupils in several local authorities, including Catherine’s. The service allows pupils like Michael to continue their studies without leaving home. In other respects, however, Michael’s online school is much like a traditional mainstream one: his teachers are fully qualified subject specialists, he has a set timetable which he follows each week and an attendance report which is fed back to his local authority.

He has homework and he can talk to his classmates, if he wishes, before and after the class. He knows that he has a routine and must log on to his live lessons. The main difference is that he talks with his teacher and classmates via instant messaging and a microphone and headset. Michael doesn’t feel judged in the online space and has complete control of who he talks to and when. In Catherine’s eyes, learning in this way has meant that Michael has received a real education, free of the problems associated with attending a mainstream school. 

Now in Year 11, Michael is spending three days a week online with Accipio, one day at an FE college doing a course in creative crafts, and a day at a pupil referral unit where he is studying for GCSE in art. The two days away from home are major outings for mother and son. Michael also attends a martial arts class, which has helped boost his self-confidence. Otherwise, he stays at home, where he is happiest.

Catherine is conscious that many people reading her story might feel that she has made too many concessions to Michael, but she remains confident that she has acted in his best interests. ‘All that I can say is that as a single mother, and having been on my own for the past 12 years, this is what I think is the right thing to do. Michael is a success story; he is blossoming very well; his confidence is coming back; he is now participating well in classes; he logs in without prompting; he has got a routine that he knows and sticks to; he does his coursework on time.

‘Michael came so close to dropping out of the education system altogether and it is wonderful that he now has a real chance to get his GCSEs. Learning in the online school has removed the stresses he felt in the mainstream environment but has still offered him the opportunity to succeed.

‘There must be thousands of other parents in the position I was, at the end of my tether and running out of options. I’m sure many of their children could benefit from this form of learning. It has had such a positive effect on Michael and his prospects and has made our home life so much happier. I’d recommend anyone else in this situation to contact their school or local authority and ask if they can be given access to the same opportunity we have had.’

As for Michael, he has become an authority on online gaming, running internet-based tutorials on strategy. With his talent for drawing he has also developed an interest in animation and is now looking at taking either an online or part-time college course in game design.

Catherine believes that Michael’s passion for his pastime will act as a catalyst for the next stage of his development: ‘He will get half a dozen GCSEs, which is an enormous achievement, and it will give him a platform to go on to further education and have a go at life. He came so close to dropping out totally. He has come such a long way.’ 

The names of the mother and child in this article have been changed.