SCHOOL HOLIDAYS. ARE THEY LONG ENOUGH?

What do I remember about June, 1982? Well, it was the Australian winter (British summer) that Prince William was born, and it was the winter where I had to go and see a dentist to have a special plate made for my mouth (my front top teeth were way apart so they had to bring them closer together). I remember sitting in the dentist’s chair and his nurse said, on the second Tuesday of the winter holidays, “They end quickly, don’t they?” And yes, they did. All too soon, I was to be back at school.

You might say that every kid experiences that, where nine to ten weeks of term take forever, and two weeks’ holiday fly by in the blink of an eye. And yes, I remember a line from Once Were Warriors where the magistrate in the Children’s Court when Mark “Boogie” Heke appeared before them and was sent to Riverton, saying, “We all didn’t like school as kids, young man. We went because we had to.” What the magistrate didn’t understand, as Grace Heke was thinking, was, Boogie didn’t play truant so much because he didn’t like school, but because he was a soft kid who was frequently bullied by other kids.

For autistic kids, the learning at school can be rewarding, but the social aspect of school can be downright draining. Okay, I wasn’t invited to birthday parties and the like, and I’m not bitter or angry about it, but school can be draining when you need time at lunchtime to decompress, only to find that predatory kids do not respect that.

Okay, I’m not saying that school terms should be reversed of two weeks of learning and ten weeks holiday. But I remember a columnist writing an opinion piece who asked if kids still needed eight weeks off to help with the harvest in summer. My response to that was, it’s not until Years Ten and Eleven at high school that they obtain eight weeks holiday; kids in Years One to Nine get six weeks holiday in summertime. And part of the reason for that is, Year Ten students, upon completion of the year, receive their Junior Certificate, which, in Queensland, had to come from the Board of Secondary School Studies, so, you would do your final exams, break up from school, and after a week, you would go back to school for about half an hour to obtain your Junior Certificate, and then you’d go home, again. And, with the Christmas period typically in the second week of the summer holidays, in Australia, if all high school students finished on the same day, the Board would be working around the clock in one week to get everything done, and it would mean that students in Year Ten would have to go back to school in the week of Christmas to get their certificates, or have them posted out, and what would be the point of the students going to school for two weeks and doing nothing? Well, there’d be none!

The onus has to be on some people to consider a few factors during the school holidays. Autistic students have to cope with a lot. And for some, the holidays can be too short. And, if they had family circumstances like mine, the school holidays would basically be weeks where, instead of getting up, having breakfast and getting dressed for school, you got up, had breakfast and had to entertain a pesky sibling who couldn’t fill their time by themselves, so by the time you went back to school, you didn’t feel like you’d had a holiday.

Schools need to not so much get “back to basics” but implement some new basics, one of which is student mental health. There’s a school in England that is almost Dickensian England in its approach, where students are not permitted a day off school, and if a student needs to vomit, they are given a bucket and they vomit into it and then have to do their work, with the school’s philosophy being, “that’s what you needed to do.” Well, let’s assume the student vomits because they have acute appendicitis. What they need is not a bucket but an operation to remove an inflamed appendix! So that school’s idea is wrong!

Mental health days for students are important, and it’s a strategy that needs to be conducted on multiple levels. On the one hand, it involves students being able to do creative subjects, like art or music. It also involves students being able to take mental health days off. Now, that doesn’t mean that a parent can ring up and say, “My child is having two weeks off,” and the school can do nothing about it. What it means is, students need to be able to check in with the school, and if they need a day or two off, they can have it, and they can catch up. They need to come back to school refreshed and recharged. But it also doesn’t mean that students can take a mental health day the day an assignment is due and be happily sitting in their lounge room doing it while everyone else is at school.

What it can also mean is, students can have some free time over the weekends to do things they want to do without fear of falling behind. Assignments need to be done, too.

School students need a summer holiday of the length they have in Australia. The opinion writer compared it to Asian countries but that ignores a few things. Yes, Japan has four seasons a year, and kids, in the summertime have some holidays but they attend cram schools and get plenty of homework. In Singapore and Malaysia, however, you have two seasons a year, hot and dry and hot and wet, so they are used to it. I remember, when I was in Year Eight, one spring day, it reached 37 degrees and was uncomfortably muggy and with that being like summer, I could not imagine Australian kids attending school up until Christmas Eve, and having a week off and going back to school in early January in boiling hot weather.

School students also need breaks through the year. And for autistic students, time out from school is not just appreciated, it’s essential. Essential to prevent burnout.

Diagnosed with autism at 35. Explained a lifetime of difference.