Wellington mother 'forced into a corner' in attempt to find the right school for her neurodiverse child

Kate's five-year-old daughter is diagnosed with high functioning autism.
Kate's five-year-old daughter is diagnosed with high functioning autism. Photo credit: Getty

When a Wellington mother enrolled her five-year-old to her older child's public school, she was horrified when they refused her a position.

Kate's* five-year-old daughter is diagnosed with high functioning autism - but she says it's not an excuse for the lack of support her family has received.

"There were sensory issues, there were concentration issues, there was hyperactivity, there was fighting and tantrums and screaming and throwing toys - all sorts of stuff," she told Newshub.

"She was born 'different' and we knew that she was 'different'."

But rather than going down the avenue of looking at ways to help her daughter, Kate says the teachers at daycare just decided she was just a "bad parent".

"They decided my child's behaviour was because I didn't give her enough attention," she says.

When Kate enrolled her child to her older sister's primary school, they refused to give her a position, telling her it was because they lived seven houses out of zone.

"In their enrollment, they say that siblings of enrolled children have priority but they refused to take my younger daughter because of seven houses out of zone," Kate says.

"They said that under no circumstances would they take her unless they were directed by the Ministry of Education."

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Kate believes the school was just trying to find excuses.

"It's being hidden under the guise of being 'out of the zone' but it's actually to do with the fact that my daughter is different. We were forced into a corner because the Ministry of Education refused to direct the other school to take her."

Autism NZ chief executive Dane Dougan says it's "disappointing", but instances like Kate's do happen.

"We do hear these stories a lot," Dougan told Newshub. "People look for reasons - schools look for reasons not to accept a member of the community. And that's disappointing - because every child has the right to an education right?"

An open-plan classroom can cause problems for children who suffer from high-functioning autism.
An open-plan classroom can cause problems for children who suffer from high-functioning autism. Photo credit: Getty

Open-plan classrooms 'a disaster' for children with sensory issues

After Kate's daughter was rejected from her sister's school, they found out that the public school in zone was one that uses an open-plan classroom-style approach.

An open-plan classroom is when two, three or more classes merge together in one space with multiple teachers.

It's part of the government's innovative learning environment (ILE) approach, and differs from the traditional style of rows of desks facing a teacher.

But an open-plan classroom can cause problems for any autistic child.

"Any neurodiverse child is not going to cope with a class with 54 kids," Kate says. "Especially for a kid with massive sensory issues."

Autism NZ's Dane Dougan says although open-plan classrooms can be successful for some children, it's unlikely to benefit autistic children.

"Generally, it's an overwhelming environment and sensory overload comes with that," he says.

"It can be extremely difficult and counter-productive for them."

The Ministry of Education says the learning spaces in all classrooms can be adapted or modified to "better support" the needs of neurodiverse students.

"This is often led by changes in teaching practices, reconfiguring furniture and revising the proportions allocated as quiet/collaborative spaces," sector enablement and support deputy secretary Katrina Casey says.

Casey says most schools have a range of different classroom layouts but many are making plans to redevelop their teaching spaces.

"We recognise that we need to continue to do more to support neurodiverse children and young people, and this is one of the key priority areas in the Learning Support Action plan."

Autism NZ says they're continuing to advocate for more support available to all schools.
Autism NZ says they're continuing to advocate for more support available to all schools. Photo credit: Getty

'For the first time, we have not had to fight for anything'

Kate says she and her family were given no option but to either "watch the disaster unfold" or pay $16,000 for a private school.

"The state of our public education system is a f**king disaster," she says.

"I could have just put her into the school and watched her struggle, watch the teacher struggle and watch the other kids in the class struggle.

The pair decided paying $16,000 was their best - and only other option.

"[My husband and I] are trades people, we budget to let that happen because we can't afford it. We go without things so that our daughter can go to that school."

But the private school has given her daughter an opportunity to thrive.

With only six other children in the classroom, her education has so far proved to be worth the cost.

"She is living her best life," Kate says. "She is in a classroom with six children and for the first time in her whole life, we have not had to fight for anything."

Autism NZ says they're continuing to advocate for more support available to all schools - no matter where it is.

Dougan says he's aware other families have uprooted their families to move into school zones where their autistic children will be offered more support, and they're trying to expand their programme so all children can receive the best education.

"Having that choice is really important for us. We are continuing to advocate for that - for choice," he says.

And for Kate, she says she shouldn't have to fight for wanting her child to receive the best education possible.

*Name has been changed to protect Kate's identity.