My son Philip has developed a terrifying habit. He'll shake me awake in the dead of night to tell me what he scored on his most recent university assignment.
In his defense, he got a pretty awesome mark.
In my defense, a few years ago whenever he shook me awake in the dead of night it was usually because he was losing his battle with the mental illness he'd experienced as a child. He'd crawl into my arms and scream or shake for a couple of hours before falling into an exhausted sleep, or we'd end up in the local hospital emergency room again.
But so much has changed since then.
"Mum! Mum! I just got my mark for my latest university assignment!" he whisper-yelled at around 3am.
Heart thudding, I asked what he got.
He answered, "10.1 out of 10!" and was so excited and smiling and proud of himself.
Philip is studying IT, and it turned out he'd rewritten part of the code he had to use for the assignment to "fix it" before completing his assignment. His lecturer was so impressed, he gave him more than the maximum 10 out of 10.
The reason this is so extraordinary is the fact Philip barely made it through school, and I always suspected he wasn't the problem.
Watching him thrive at university has just confirmed it – the education system in Australia doesn't currently cater to smart, bright, autistic students like my son. Instead, it leaves them feeling stupid, like failures, broken, mentally ill, terrified of life.
Philip's school experience was so toxic he barely made it through Year 10 and spent a year recovering from the experience – an accidental gap year during which I tried to focus on putting him back together again.
"Philip barely made it through school, and I always suspected he wasn't the problem."
At first there was a lot of sleeping and playing computer games, then his love of learning returned. He signed up to some online courses and learned how to code, then taught himself more skills via YouTube.
It frustrated me that because he hadn't completed his senior school years, a proper computer course through university wouldn't be available to him until he either completed an equivalency course through TAFE or gained industry experience, both impossible tasks for him.
Philip is very bright, but he is autistic and has ADHD. That means he needs some simple modifications to learn, modifications the school system didn't bother to implement for him.
He needs written instructions, a peaceful environment, appropriate lighting, less noise, no pressure.
In frustration, I rang Macquarie University, where I am still studying, and asked for advice and they told me about a pathway program for kids like Philip.
Through Open Universities Australia, he could complete four subjects of any university degree he liked. He chose Bachelor of Information Technology through RMIT in Melbourne.
The tertiary education system must have known it was missing out on a massive cohort of incredible students like my son and did something about it.
All he had to do was complete four of their core subjects with a Credit result above and he'd be allowed in to the university degree. Better still, it is covered by HECS.
Philip has only been graded High Distinctions and the aforementioned 10.1 out of 10. High achiever, much?
Suffice to say, Philip and his intelligence and capability was clearly never the problem and he and I are feeling a mixture of joy, relief, sadness and anger at what the secondary school system in particular did to him.
For the record, I believe his experience in secondary schools caused or contributed to his depression and anxiety all those years. How could it not, when every day he was left feeling bad and wrong and different?
He loves his university studies, but his attempts at joining the workforce haven't been successful so far and I'm a bit worried about that.
I know for a fact most workplaces make the same mistakes as secondary schools, by failing to cater to autistic employees most basic needs. But that's a fight for another time.
This isn't about the teachers – they did everything they could to help him. This is about the education system and its focus on rewarding one kind of student, not all students, each of whom is unique and special and capable of so much more than the school system leaves them feeling and believing about themselves.
There's a lot of work to be done, but for now, I'm going to enjoy watching my son learn and grow and feel smart and have other people tell him how amazing he is.
He deserves this, I deserve this, every student deserves this.