What we have in Finland I perceive as the privilege

Clara with son

Clara Vázquez is my coworker, psychologist, activist and mother of two. Her 11 years old son has autism and he moved to Finland with his family about 5 years ago. In the first part of this blog, we spoke with Clara about what she finds important in the relationship between mother and child. Today’s topics are social services and the integration of children with special needs in Finland.

Clara moved to Finland when her son was 5 years old: “My partner was Finn, I knew the Finnish social system and I knew that my son would obtain much more help there than in Spain. But it was not all just ideal. Adaptation in the new country was horrible. My son has, similarly like many other children with autism, a sensorial disorder. In Spain he had never worn wellingtons. In Finland he had to get used to wearing gloves, caps, winter overall, to the fact that there is cold weather. I was terrible, much worse than I had expected. Because of the sensorial disorder he stopped to eat. Spanish tomatoes taste differently than tomatoes in Finland and so on… The adaptation period was more than 6 months long and it was a nightmare.”

After their arrival to Finland passed quite a long time before her son was accepted to the kindergarten. But, once he was accepted he immediately obtained his own assistant and he was integrated in the small group of 8 children in a common day care centre. Beside his assistant, there were 3 more adults in this group – 1 main teacher and 2 assisting teachers. 

In Finland, all children have the right to early childhood education and care, which is provided by individual municipalities. Children who are in need of special care have the guarantee to obtain such care e.g. in a form of having an assistant or municipality increases the number of workers in a particular facility.

“I was personally very happy that his assistant was with him the whole time he was in kindergarten. Not only because of practical help with taking on and off the clothes, helping with using the toilet or with eating, but also as a prevention of bullying. Children with special needs are more often bullied and I was terrifying by that. It was also great, that when my son was tired, his assistant could go with him outside, or to the nearby forest, where only the two of them were together. My son could relax a bit from the noise and information in the classroom.”

A child with an autism and with Spanish as a primary language was integrated into the Swedish speaking environment in Finland. Naturally the question pops up: How was it?

“My son has an excellent auditory memory. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t come immediately.  But it was more easier that I had expected. It was much worse to get him used to the different clothes and to different food’s taste.”

After one and half year in the kindergarten and pre-school he started in the school. He visits the school for children with special needs in Helsinki. 

“I am really happy with his school. They have a lot of activities and different subjects, including music, art and sports. During the day they also have speech therapy and occupational therapy. It is so great that I don’t have to visit those therapies with him after school and we can have a family life once he is back from school. In his classroom are 7 children with different special needs, not only with autism. Every child has his/her own assistant and there is also a teacher.”

Finnish society has a very low hierarchy. It can be seen also in the schools or working places. Clara adds: “I like the fact that everybody can come with his or her own ideas and that the whole group – children, their assistants and teacher work as a one team. Everybody counts. In Spain teachers normally  are the most important ones, then assistants and just after them children. Here are all of them on the same level and all of them are heard. I am also happy that the rhythm of my son is respected in school. He is sensitive to experiencing stress. When somebody from adults in the classroom notices that he is not comfortable, nobody pushes him into anything. He can have a break, he has time to calm down and he continues when he is ready.”

Child with a disability has the same rights for primary education as any other kid. According to the legislation on basic education, a child with a disability obtains support that is necessary for him/her to participate in the educational process. It can be for example as assistive equipment, special needs education, and interpretation and assistant services. CHild has to obtain the help and support immediately. Children with the intellectual disabilities might have an extended compulsory education, e.g. 2 years of pre-primary education instead of 1. 

Clara’s son’s school is 15 kms away from their residence. The municipality pays daily for the taxi to get him to and out of the school. Parents don’t need to drive their kids, this service is provided by the city contracted taxi service. Children with the disability or special needs are entitled to the school transport, if they can’t use the public transportation. An alternative to free transport is a subsidy for transporting or accompanying a student to school.

Secondary and upper education is provided to the children and youth in the common secondary schools or in the special secondary schools. Children still have the right for having an assistant or for transportation services. Everything free of charge. Those children and youngsters who can’t visit common secondary or upper educational facilities have right for more individualised education, that improves their skills for everyday life or develops the student’s ability to participate in working life and civic participation. In other words, everyone is educated according to their needs and individual possibilities, regardless of their health status.

“Every parent is afraid for her/his child. I moved to Finland mostly to secure my son’s future. I feel very sad about the approach that sometimes my birth country has towards those in need. What we have in Finland I perceive as a privilege, comparing with the situation that we were facing in the small town we were living in Spain. I feel that my son can have a good life in Finland. I wasn’t sure about this in Spain. I am from a small Spanish town, and they don’t provide all the services that we need in order to have a quality life.” adds Clara. 

Finnish social state doesn’t only think about the well-being of children, but it cares also for the well-being of the parents who take care of an autistic child. Only parents who can rest can maintain the long term care for a child with special needs. That’s why Clara uses the possibility of weekend’s camps, where her son is in the care of professionals and she can spend time only with her daughter or to have some little time just for herself. 

“When this possibility was offered to me, it was extremely difficult to use it. It’s difficult to think in a term, that actually when I spend less time with my son, I can be a better mother. Rationally I had known that I’m tired, but feelings of guilt were chasing me. Reprehension, that I’m sending my child away and instead of being with me, he will be with strangers. Nowadays I use this service regularly, every second weekend and I can see the positive effects it has on me and on mz son. And of course, on my daughter too. After all we had started just slowly, little step by step. Son didn’t go to the camp immediately for the whole weekend. At the beginning he was there just for a few hours, later on for one night and gradually he stayed for a whole weekend. When I came to look at this camp, I was excited. There is enough personnel, it’s a lovely place, there is a sauna and most importantly, every child has the same challenges as my son. So they learn new social skills, they improve their adaptability to different situations, they can try new hobbies, they go for trips… And for me, this is the time when I can do what I like. And this is so important for every parent. To find time just for yourself. And we, parents with children with special needs, we need this time maybe even more, because we face so many stressful situations. I feel much better, I can sleep better, I have time also for my younger daughter. And for her it’s also important that only two of us, we are together. Personnel in this camp luckily don’t change so often. My son has the same assistant for the third year and he is looking forward to this camp. And this is what counts. When I can see that he wants to go there, I know everything is fine. These weekend camps are the most incredible service for me in Finland. In Spain, in the time when I had lived there, I wasn’t aware of the availability of such a service. These camps have an enormous positive effect on all of us. I feel much healthier, I have much more energy. I can go for a walk just by myself, to fresh my head and not to think for a few hours…”

Besides using the social services, parent of a child with special needs in Finland can get the financial support for taking care for his/her child. This financial support is paid based on the job contract between parent and municipality. That means that a parent who takes care for his/her child is seen as a working parent, not as a recipient of a social benefit. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big difference for you, but I actually think it’s a huge difference – do you want to be seen as a working person or as a recipient of the benefits?

Thank you, Clara Vázquez, once again for our interview and many thanks to Patrícia Zimčíková who helped me with the Finnish legislation.

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