Special days

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Even a change of breakfast radio presenter can upset an autistic child, explains Maria Corby

Sarah Kennedy is off sick and Mo Dutta is on Radio 2 from 6-7.30am. This means Rupert won't go to school. He is standing by the front door, still in his pyjamas, when the taxi comes to pick him up. His mother, Kathleen, is standing helplessly by his side. She is a slight woman, pretty and pale with curling blonde hair that she keeps tied back. Her big, strong, beautiful son is autistic and can't cope with a change to his routine, and although she can usually get him to do as she wants, today it seems hopeless.

The taxi driver is impatient; he has another child to pick up, then a lucrative airport run. The taxi escort, Mag, is making a big fuss. "Come on Rupert, time to go - school," she says, and signs "SCHOOL". Rupert smiles nervously and shifts from foot to foot. He is 6ft and broad-shouldered; a striking 14-year-old whose blond curls give him an angelic look. He looks at his mother.

"School, Rupert," she says, a little desperately. She has a lot to do today and having Rupert home will mean none of it will get done. She rummages through the bag Rupert keeps round his waist, and finds a card with a symbol on it - a stylised picture of a school. "School," she repeats.

Rupert stares at her and smiles. He makes no attempt to move. "If we can get him in the taxi," says Kathleen, "the school can get him dressed."

Kathleen and the escort take an arm each and attempt to move Rupert forwards. It's useless; Rupert is inert and resists the attempts of the women. He giggles. Maybe he can see the picture - himself, tall and strong in checked pyjamas, his mother short and slight on one side and Mag, small and dark on the other, both talking, cajoling and trying everything they can think of.

Then Christine, a teaching assistant who works in Rupert's class, strides past the taxi and up the driveway. "Rupert Anders, go and get dressed at once," she says firmly. Rupert looks resigned. The women let go of his arms and he lopes upstairs. Christine smiles. "I hope you don't mind," she says, "I heard the radio and thought there might be trouble." Mag goes back to the taxi and Rupert's mum looks as if she might cry. Christine puts an arm round her. "It's OK," she says, "it's OK." Rupert arrives at the bottom of the stairs, washed, dressed and grinning. "Say goodbye to mummy," says Christine, "We're going to school."

Maria Corby is the deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties in the west of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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