img_5599So many people have missed hugs and cuddles during lockdown; there has been a real toll on mental health resulting from the restriction of physical contact. It’s how we show love, affection, support, reconciliation, greeting – so many things. A world without this contact seems somehow more empty and sterile. But I have had practise; for Joe and I, it has been the norm for around 13 years. I will never get used to it. At night, as he goes to bed, sometimes he tolerates me kissing my fingers then tapping them on the top of his head (he knows he’s safe most of the day as that is a part of him I can’t even reach now if he’s standing), but otherwise, his autism does not allow me to touch him. This week has been particularly difficult because Joe passed his GCSE’s – every single one of them. I can’t kiss him, hug him, throw him a party or bake him a cake, I can’t make him the centre of attention, praise him or buy him a surprise present, no matter how small. All those things would upset Joe too much – I have learnt from bitter experience. So I am left with the only thing I can do, to write this this page as a celebration of my son who refused to give up, who faced so many set-backs, who was let down again and again and again by a system that promised to support him, and each time he was knocked down, he got back up and gave of his best. He achieved less than he deserved, but enough that he will be able to continue down the path that he wants to follow.

There is a part of me that is frustrated. I know he was capable of better. Joe has missed out on over two years of school attendance due to exclusions and school transfers that took months and months. Each of the seven schools he attended required time to settle in and readjust before he could begin learning again, and much of the time he spent settled in school was still a daily challenge for him. Part of me asks how much more could he have achieved if he had been given the consistent, appropriate support he should have had; I grieve for him, quietly, in a corner of my mind.

Part of me wants to take all nine of Joe’s GCSE passes and show them to every person who has told me that Joe couldn’t and wouldn’t achieve, all those people who gave up on Joe, all those people who refused to support Joe when they had an option to do so. I want to shout at them, ‘Look what he has done. See, you were wrong.’ But I know it would be pointless. Joe’s cynics have the perfect get out clause – Covid GCSE results are flawed.

Regardless, for Joe there is no more school. It is over; the relief of it. For those who fit into the school system, school can be wonderful, exhilarating, challenging, eye-opening. It can provide new experiences, new horizons, a place to grow; I have watched Peta blossom over the last two years, even through lockdown’s remote learning. But for those who don’t fit or for whom the right support is not there, school can be destructive, oppressive and disheartening, leaving lasting feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, incompatibility. I remember asking a friend why parents don’t fight for the rights of their children after exclusions, why they don’t show up the failings of the system. She replied that she thought parents just became too tired. It was after Joe’s first exclusion, and I didn’t feel that tired then. I couldn’t understand why parents who had gone before me hadn’t tried to fight for justice for their child, to make things better for the people who followed. Now I completely understand. There is no energy left for looking back, no time to ask questions. There is barely the stamina to look forward, but look forward I must because the fight is not over; it will not be plain-sailing from here. Covid has only made things harder; with one week to go before Joe moves on, he has no transport and only half the support he needs in place for when he starts at the local college. And guess who is the fall back to support Joe on the two week days he is not in college?  That will be me. Challenges have changed; they have not gone.

For now though, we have a window of calm. It’s time to rest, to celebrate, to acknowledge Joe’s massive achievement. The school chapter of Joe’s life is over. He came out of this challenge unbeaten; he is ready for the next step. He is moving to College to start a BTEC in mechanical engineering, something he has had a fascination with ever since he dismantled my vacuum cleaner before nursery one morning to see how it worked. I am so very, very proud of Joe. It shows his true determination that despite everything, he persevered and his reward is a real chance for him to do something he is absolutely passionate about. He has the grades to get him where he wants to be, and right now, that’s all that matters.

Well done Joe.

I love you.