It is Alex’s first day at Volksschule, two streets from our home – “the school with the red slide” that he wanted to go to. We cry with pride and relief as we take pictures for relatives. He’s arrived after a three-year voyage with storms, tears, and sleepless nights. Alex disappears happily into his school building with his Sonderpädagoge, who he had met over the summer.
It started with concerns about Alex’s development in Summer 2019. He began speech therapy (Logopädie) and we went to a psychologist following indications of potential autism. The diagnosis of infantile autism came on a stormy, cold Friday afternoon in early January 2020. Now, in September 2022, he starts school.
Intensive preparations for school enrolment began 12 months ago, at the start of Alex’s Vorschuljahr at his bilingual kindergarten. If you are a parent of a pre-school year child with special needs, the work starts now for starting school in September 2023.
Getting into the Vorschuljahr seemed like a triumph. In 2020/21 regular video calls with kindergarten, often at short notice, hinted we should enrol Alex in a Sonderkindergarten or elsewhere. We took the “do whatever it takes” approach and assembled “Team Alex”: a Fachassistenz (1:1 assistance two mornings a week) through Autistenhilfe, parental counselling through VKKJ, an occupational therapist (Ergotherapeutin), speech therapist (Logopädin) and the staff at his Kindergarten. Regular private in-house therapies offered at Kindergarten proved vital – but are not standard!
Team Alex’s final line-up steered him through his final year, the team having changed frequently before that. Every substitution meant getting new team members up to speed, granting permission for everyone to be able to talk to one another (GDPR…), and disruption to Alex’s fixed routine.
A “plain vanilla” Schuleinschreibung involves finding a local school, attending open days, and signing up in January and then an interview. For a special needs child, your first step is to contact FIDS – the Special Unit of the Schuldirektion for inclusion and diversity – at the start of the preceding school year (i.e. now for starting next September!) The months prior to January are key, especially in terms of developmental progress and getting everything in order. To assist his development, we also actively did extra activities with him to supplement his therapies. His Fachassistenz also guided him through the pre-school programme (Maxi Club).
During the autumn, FIDS staff observed Alex at Kindergarten (once with his ergotherapist and once without) and we gave them full access to his therapists. This assessment (free of charge) was necessary to provide realistic options for school enrolment, and they advise about potential schools in our catchment area (typically your district, or possibly the neighbouring district, if you live on the edge of the district). A public full-day school (Ganztagsschule) requires both parents to be working, but for a special needs child in the Integrationsklasse, this requirement might be waived (a welcome break as my wife was between jobs when the application had to be submitted).
FIDS suggested either an Einstiegsklasse (there are five dotted around Vienna, but none very close to where we live) or a Volksschule with Integrationsklasse. The former would only be for one year, but with gruelling logistics (pick-up at 6:30 to get Alex across town in time, classes from 8-11/12, transfer to Hort and then transfer home). The Einstiegsklasse’s pedagogical focus is on motor skills, coordination, social skills etc. to enable a child to hopefully start at a more local school the following year. It would have been a group of 8-10 children with varying autism spectrum diagnoses.
The possibility of Volksschule was dependent on Alex’s Intelligenzdiagnostik, which our parental counsellor (a psychologist) at VKKJ conducted. It involved Alex doing various exercises tailored for his age range. About six weeks later we received a written report, which we needed for Schuleinschreibung. It confirmed that they felt he was on track to attend Volksschule. The outcome of the Intelligenzdiagnostik may prove particularly useful if the initial diagnosis was made early (e.g. from about 2½).
The Schuleinschreibung process involves a lot of paperwork as the norm, and with even more for a special needs child (e.g. copies of diagnoses, case notes etc.). You will need to submit every around the second or third week of January. An incomplete submission can affect your chances of acceptance – so gather papers well in advance, factoring in plenty of time for diagnoses and write-ups (often six to eight weeks!).
BIO: Mike Bailey has lived in Vienna since 2000, and is an in-house translator specialising in financial markets supervision, and married father of three children (Alex and twins George and Charlotte). He is actively involved with British in Austria, although he is now a proud Austrian citizen.