The right mindset: Preparing a special child for the new school year

01 September 2022

The right mindset: Preparing a special child for the new school year

Geneviève Pronovost, a history teacher at Collège Brébeuf, is the mother of Xavier, 17. Autistic but not intellectually disabled, Xavier is a history buff who is starting his new school year at CEGEP. We spoke with his mother about this important step for him and for her.


We are currently in July, in the heart of summer. When I say the word “back to school,” what does it bring to mind?

It’s getting hectic! There are four of us all heading back to school: me and my three children. We teachers are always a little nervous, it’s stressful because we don’t want to miss the first few hours in our classroom. The first impression with our students is crucial. It’s also the first day of school for the boys: one in elementary school, one in middle school and Xavier who is starting CEGEP. Three levels, three different schools! Plus, their father and I are separated.

I prepare for the start of the school year well in advance. At the beginning of August, I buy school supplies and clothes so that when the time comes, my head is clear. So I was nervous, a little anxious and at the same time, not overly stressed out. Will there be services available for Xavier? What will the student body be like? Will the children’s friends, especially Xavier’s, still be there? There is a lot of uncertainty. We are putting everything in place to cope, but there is also a lot of trust involved. If I see any bridges to cross, I’ll cross them when they happen. I also feel anxiety. Entering CEGEP is a new experience for Xavier. He finished high school, five years in the same school with well-established services. Plus, there is the fact that Xavier is supposed to be working this summer.

Can you introduce your family?

I have three boys! Mathias is 15 years old and is very resourceful and independent. He is going places. Alexis, 11 years old, the baby of the family, is very close to his brother Xavier, who is 6′2″ and is a contemporary history buff! The father, Renaud, is a full professor at HEC. I am a teacher at Collège Brébeuf and a radio and television commentator. Our professional lives are enriching and full. I met Louis-Philippe, who also has two children. When you think about it, it’s an extended family universe.

Tell us what you do over the summer?

Mathias works and Xavier is doing an internship to become a barista through a Carrefour jeunesse-emploi program. We have been going through all kinds of steps since he was 16 years old so that he could work. It’s been quite a journey: drafting his CV and taking it with him, the rejections before the interviews, the rejections after the interviews…

It’s a learning process for us, and it’s very hard for Xavier. Ever since he was little, we have been constantly informing those around us and the school about Xavier’s particularities. Things have always been organized around him to make his environment more welcoming. But what about jobs? I’m not going to go with him to an employer to explain how Xavier works!

We have equipped him as much as possible to prepare him for the job market. Last year, we accompanied him right to the door of the business. He would go by himself to meet the managers. It didn’t work out. This year, Xavier saw his little brother in Secondary 3 head off to work. That made him even more excited.

He started working at IGA. After two or three weekends, he was told that it was over. I went to see the manager to find out what had happened. He didn’t know that Xavier was autistic and assured me that things would have turned out differently had he known. We then went over the situation with our son. Xavier had to tell his employers that he was autistic, to express his condition in his own words, without devaluing himself. At 17, you are at the end of adolescence, your identity is not complete and autism does not make it easy to make friends and have social relationships. Xavier realized that he needed help finding a job. So we started working with Carrefour jeunesse-emploi and, this summer, Xavier got internships as a barista in cafés! I knew that there were organizations that supported people who needed help with speech therapy and occupational therapy. I found out that there was also assistance available with integrating people with disabilities into the workforce. It was such a relief! Next year, Xavier will be 18 years old. Will he be able to earn a living one day? I feel at a crossroads.

You just mentioned that you have always made the environment welcoming for your son … When it comes to CEGEP, are you stepping back?

At the end of the summer, Xavier entered Collège de Rosemont where he was accepted with flying colours; he is a genius when it comes to history. When he registered in March, he had already expressed the wish to receive help from the college, to keep his social worker and to have his intervention plan followed. He even asked for virtual meetings with the academic advisor for assistance in this regard. He wants to make sure he gets the help he needs. And I didn’t make those arrangements, Xavier did! I no longer have direct contact with the advisors. Xavier even submitted his diagnosis of autism, which was received at the age of three. We reread this document together; he really took to it!

What is your son’s relationship with school up to this year?

In elementary school, the first two teachers were great. He loved school, but … not math. I coached him a lot to help him develop his study skills. For math, he had a tutor, who we gradually learned to delegate to and trust. We were able to focus on the rest, on what was going well.

One year, Xavier had a teacher who would not implement any accommodations. He found that difficult, but he’s not very sensitive to the person in front of him, it’s more about the subject matter. When he started high school, his father and I separated. As if nothing had happened, Xavier returned to school and made two new friends. He spent most of the pandemic at home, never turning away from school and his great passion for 20th century Chinese and Japanese history.

What is back-to-school time like for him?

There is excitement, but nothing overboard. High school was a reassuring place for him, with the same social worker. Same hallways, same classes, same people. On the first day of high school, Xavier was waiting for his grandmother, who was supposed to come with him, but she couldn’t make it. Xavier took his things and went to school alone, making sure to tell the social worker! When it came to starting Collège de Rosement, I felt he was much more anxious. It seems that this summer he realized that he was going to have to deal with his autism. Up until now, he thought he was able to blend in. It makes him question whether he will be able to do his jobs, understand the situation, work during the summers. He is less confident now and more aware of these issues, which adds to his anxiety.

How does he see himself entering CEGEP and the newness that comes with it?

Collège de Rosemont is closer to home than to his father’s. He is thinking about changing his routine. This is very stressful for him. So in order to reassure him, we have decided to continue with the routine of one week at Dad’s and one week at Mom’s. He is also concerned about transportation. He plans schedules and routes, and tries to figure out an easy route. I remember my own first day of college. It wasn’t easy; I worked very hard. I trust Xavier, although I will be a little more alert. He doesn’t talk much, so I’ll have to ask more questions and be attentive. He’s not quite ready to be self-sufficient. He needs to be able to make three or four simple meals and figure out transportation logistics. These are our two challenges for the summer: cooking and getting around. Will he be able to live in an apartment one day, to earn a living? Who knows where the future will take him. We are currently in an in-between period. He is autonomous in many things, but not very resourceful. I would have required services such as teaching him to cook or encouraging him to talk to people who are similar to him.

How do you prepare for your son’s first day of school?

At the end of June, I met with the elementary school teacher to make sure the intervention plan was going to be sent to the right place. In mid-August, I called the school to find out who the social worker was. If it was a new social worker, could they read the file and learn about Xavier’s specific needs? Was the teacher open to accommodations? After that, I would call math tutoring to schedule him for tutoring. Occupational therapy services stopped at the end of elementary school.

At l’Appui pour les proches aidants, we talk about “parent caregivers.” What does this expression mean to you?

It was only recently that I realized that I am a parent/caregiver, but I have a lot of questions. We are raising a child who is a little different, but are we really “caregivers”? In my mind, a caregiver was someone who cares for an elderly person or someone who is at home and needs services for their housework or groceries; it was someone who needed help to ensure that the person they cared for could end their days with dignity. That’s not what I do with my child. Xavier is not losing his autonomy. I am accompanying him towards his independence. I don’t know…

What would be required to facilitate the return to school for children and their parents who are caregivers? What do you hope for?

For all parents of autistic, learning disabled, anxious or gifted children, I think that things should be sorted out in June, with a parent-school administration meeting: intervention plan, social worker’s assessment, report card, progress, difficulties, planning for the next school year, transfers and the booking of services. When the vacation period starts, everything would already be in place. Some schools are doing this, but it should be more widespread! It would make the start of the school year much easier for both children and parents.

Let’s skip ahead to D-Day. What do we see in your and your son’s faces?

For Xavier, it will be August 15 and for me, August 24! Xavier will go by himself. He will be in his bubble, wrapped up in his business, stressed out. He will talk as little as possible and will not want anyone to talk to him. My face will be filled with pride as I watch him enter CEGEP and study history. All the effort we put in… This journey is not traditional, but it is beautiful.

Here are 4 tips from Geneviève to help you prepare for the first day of school for your special child:

  1. Call on your family and friends. "Up until this year, my mother would come from Shawinigan to spend back-to-school week with us. She managed the meals, the three boys coming home, the routine. This year, it will be different";
  2. Getting school out of the way in the daily routine. "At home, homework is done before 6:30. Then we do other things";
  3. Prepare for school as early and as well as possible;
  4. Trust. "Trust the teachers, trust the school administration… If it doesn’t work, there are alternatives. Trying to control everything can be detrimental to our child. It’s like a writer writing a book. His book is his baby, but once it’s published, he doesn’t own it anymore. It’s the same with your child. You educate them, you love them, but once they are out in society, they no longer belong to you."

Interview by Karine Cloutier, Communications Project Manager at l’Appui pour les proches aidants. Thank you to Geneviève Pronovost for this summer conversation!

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