Rory’s Story. When is it ok to let go?

Listen to Rory’s story or read it below

Rory (not his real name) joined our school as a student getting support from our Autism Class. We never called it that but for the purposes of this story I’ll use the term as much as I dislike it. From early on I questioned Rory’s diagnosis to the point where I once told my principal that I felt we were teaching him to be autistic. Perhaps I’m wrong, I’m not a psychologist, but I always felt the diagnosis was masking more serious mental health difficulties for Rory.

Our school opened an Autism Class with the vision of this being an inclusive endeavour. Students attached to the class were registered as part of the mainstream grouping, attended mainstream classes with support, and the resources provided through the Autism Class were available to whoever needed support-in any area. This meant Rory was spending time with his peers, participating in learning experiences in a selection of subjects, and receiving social, organisational, and life skills support in the Autism Class. Rory began displaying challenging behaviour soon after joining us, in a time before I had started asking myself what students were trying to communicate with their behaviour. This meant my initial responses were reactive, sometimes authoritarian, and sometimes punitive. I could make excuses and say these approaches were what I thought what was needed but the long-term outcomes would say otherwise. As I learned more about behaviour, dis-regulation, and communication, I changed my approaches. I put in supports for Rory’s best and worst days. We developed hygiene, communication, and social skills programmes to help him join social groups within school. We promoted independence, worked on strategies to manage and communicate his emotions, and planned for his future after school. Rory had constant daily check-in with me and his SNA was always there to support him, me, and his other teachers. Still with all of this in place, Rory regressed. I just couldn’t reach him. Every step forward was followed by two steps back. He would refuse to come to school, go to class, answer his name. He would be sent out of class or home from school because his behaviour became too unmanageable or unsafe. His mental health became an increasing concern and I know I am not the only adult in my school who lost sleep worrying about his wellbeing and if he might hurt himself.

Having said all of this Rory made it to sixth year. And in his final year I began to source his options for further education and life after school. We were lucky to have an excellent school Guidance Counsellor as well as an external Disability Guidance Counsellor, both who worked with Rory, me and his family to find a programme to suit Rory. Months of preparation, visits to centres for Rory, meetings between school and home, and mental health supports sourced. Then came Graduation. It was the most excited about school I had ever seen Rory. He had an active role in the ceremony and we had to observe him practicing ‘his walk’ everytime we saw him. He described his outfit for the night, a suit with a dickie bow -it was a very important occasion and people would be watching him he told us. We offered to collect Rory and his family or provide a taxi if they preferred. No, they could get there themselves, they were so excited for Rory, that he had made it, finished school. And then Graduation Night arrived. No Rory. We rang and rang, no answer. His SNA wanted to drive down but it was too late. Rory missed his Graduation and we missed saying goodbye.

But that wasn’t the end for me. Enough wasn’t enough. A week later the Disability Guidance Counsellor rang. They were at Rory’s house for an agreed appointment but no-one was answering the door, could I please ring. I rang, Mam answered and said they were all sick. I explained that forms needed to be signed, the course Rory chose needed to meet him and so on and so forth. Another meeting, this time in school, was arranged. Rory didn’t show. This happened a few more times before the holidays but thankfully the course director understood and held the place. I returned to school in September to several messages from the Disability Guidance Counsellor. Rory and his family still were not engaging, what could we do. I drove down to their home (I called in advance of course), knocked on the door and rang the phone until they answered. And there was a Rory I didn’t recognise. His physical health and I can only guess his mental health had deteriorated so much in three months. He wasn’t leaving his room, let alone the house. He wasn’t going to do any course. I had worked with Rory for five years. I couldn’t just leave it at that. I called the support services that had supported us in school, I gave his parents numbers to call and for almost six months I would ring or call to the house. Until they just stopped answering. It was time to say ‘enough’, to let go. But have I? I still think about Rory, picture him still sitting in that chair in his room, but I never see that smile that shone when I picture him now. And yes, sometimes I still worry for him and feel I let him down. Do we ever forget those students we didn’t reach?