Chained up in an Australian suburb

OPINION | John Sandeman
Thursday 12 November 2015

The news drifted out slowly. It started mysteriously. A child found chained up in a house in the suburbs. In a later news bulletin, a teenager, discovered by a charity worker. Then in the cold light of dawn still more facts. A teenager from a emerging (newly arrived) community. A mother bringing up five kids on her own. And finally the young man is autistic, probably profoundly autistic.

With that final fact this story slots straight into an emerging narrative of autistic children being locked up, the use of cages at schools, school principals criticised and so on.

And autism rates are rising in our society.

As the father of an autistic child I am full of sympathy for the parents, carers and teachers involved.

As a Christian I can say that autism taught me how to pray. It changed my life, and my family’s life in many ways.

There was a time when I could not tell what time I would get to work each day. We quickly learned the best place to park outside the school where the street trees shielded the car, while we struggled to get our daughter into school.

The school (an independent Anglican school, Meriden) was fantastically welcome. They sent teachers on special courses. They found out how to provide a withdrawal space – somewhere safe for my daughter to go when the classroom was overwhelming – they created a glassed in “wet area” next to the main teaching area.

And the other parents were great. Of course my child was occasionally teased. But the other families made sure their kids apologised. Our gift to them – yes, a humiliating gift – was to teach their kids to value people who are different. In time she went on to Danebank, a school that values girls with a disability so much it offers a scholarship for its “life skills” programme.

In our case the patience and love shown by many has meant that much of my daughters autistic functioning has lessened. (This will not be everyone’s story.)

When I was a teenager my mother organised for me to go running each Friday with an autistic guy who lived down the road. The aim was to give his mum respite and to tire him out. It certainly tired me out.

As the latest story filtered slowly out, I thought of the time I spent pounding past the peppercorn trees in an Adelaide suburb. It’s those small things that can help. And there’s probably a family in your suburb that could do with your help.

Image: Will Montague | Flickr, CC Licence.

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