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Kenn Fisher is a writer, film and television producer, and father.

It’s been a little over three years since my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In that time, it seems that my experience as a parent of a neurodivergent child has been typical, in that it has involved a great deal of learning.

A recent challenge has highlighted how narrow my understanding remains. My seven-year-old son, whose autism is usually not visible to the untrained eye, has been having issues with aggression, usually from becoming overwhelmed (people with ASD are often sensitive to sensory experiences) or because of a transition (such as starting/stopping an activity, or moving to a new setting). The incidents have typically been relatively minor – shoving, grabbing, yelling – but there have been a couple more serious episodes that have required the teacher to notify the other child’s parents. In these situations, the teacher doesn’t name the other student involved, but there’s nothing stopping the parent from asking their child.

From what I understand, my son’s classmates are actually quite understanding. The same cannot be said of all the parents. Last year, when my partner arrived at the school’s aftercare, she witnessed the father of a student threatening our son. When she confronted him, the father justified it because he said our son had kicked his daughter. I understand the protective instinct, but the situation should have been resolved by speaking with school staff, as well as the other parents involved.

There was another incident a few weeks ago. We spoke with the parents, and my son apologized to their daughter. From what I can tell, the children got over it. But the story quickly went around the school, and since then, we’ve heard of several rude comments made by other parents.

Please believe me when I say that we’re trying. His mother and I are up-to-date on all the latest best practices, and we are seeing substantial improvements with our son’s behaviour. But as with anything to do with the development of children, these things take time and patience.

Part of the issue is the lack of sufficient funding in the school system. Through his individual education plan (IEP), our son is entitled to an average of 15 minutes per day of extra support in the classroom. Due to the high-sensory nature of gym and music classes, the limited additional assistance is primarily allocated to those parts of his week. Most of the time that’s enough, but sometimes it’s not.

On several occasions, he’s spent a large part of his day in the principal’s office, or the school has called and asked that we pick him up early. That means that he is missing valuable classroom time; over 13 years, that can really add up. As disability lawyer and activist Robert Lattanzio wrote, such failures in accessibility effectively result in children with disabilities not adequately receiving the right to education that is otherwise enjoyed by their peers.

We are extremely grateful for the support that we receive from the school and its teachers. But it is crucial to acknowledge the limitations imposed by broader structural issues. The dedication and efforts of the teaching staff are evident, but their hands are often tied by a lack of resources. And as parents, we have to navigate the delicate balance between understanding the constraints faced by educators and advocating for the necessary changes to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all students. That understanding and sympathy is all the more crucial when it comes to behavioural issues.

In the intricate tapestry of parenting, one quickly learns that empathy, understanding and a willingness to embrace differences are indispensable tools. The challenges we face as parents are not just personal but reflections of the broader issues ingrained in our education system, particularly its limitations on support for children with diverse needs. My son is thoughtful, funny, creative and intelligent – but I worry that operational issues within the school system, combined with prejudices from members of the community, might have long-term effects on his development, both educationally and socially. By breaking down the barriers that isolate neurodivergent children, we pave the way for a more inclusive and compassionate society.

Recently, a fellow father asked me for advice about protecting his daughter in a class with an autistic child who was occasionally aggressive. I found myself advocating for a simple solution: invite the kid over for a play date. Not only would it allow him to supervise, he may also witness a different dynamic between them when they’re playing one-on-one. And this kind of stigma-challenging and empathy-building – the kind we want to imbue in our children, but also requires cultivation among adults – is key to creating more inclusive communities for our kids.

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