Ethan’s story

Student in front of laptop

Ethan joined Red Balloon of the Air in February 2017. He had not left the house for over three and a half years. He has autism and suffers from profound anxiety and simply couldn’t go to school.

“Before joining Red Balloon I was at home, mainly doing little books of homework. That was pretty much it. We created the books ourselves; the school didn’t send them. I was mainly doing independent learning; my mum became my teacher and she would assign me work to do each day.

When I started at Red Balloon, I was quite nervous at the beginning, but it was quite a supportive transition, and quite enjoyable. I had some introductory lessons with my teachers before we jumped into learning. I had a mentor at the time, so there were a lot of meetings before I went online into lessons. I was anxious about it at first, but it was fun and interesting. Their general demeanour helped with my anxiety.

What I remember at primary school was being overly criticised when I did something wrong. But at Red Balloon it’s not like that! And that’s something I really appreciate. Red Balloon’s given me lots of support. I used to have a fear of judgement but they don’t judge me at Red Balloon, and that has helped me with that. This has reflected in other areas of my life.

“I’m more comfortable to be who I am when I’m out in public.”

Before Red Balloon, while I was at home, I didn’t go out at all. The lack of socialisation was a problem. I didn’t have a very good concept of how the world worked or the people in it. But Red Balloon makes the rest of the world less daunting for me, by knowing that there are people out there who are honestly and genuinely supportive and caring.

“If it wasn’t for Red Balloon then I wouldn’t have been able to learn anything.”

I wouldn’t have been able to go to a ‘normal’ school and I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to join Red Balloon. I definitely want to go to college. I don’t have a specific goal for the future, but science is something I’m really interested in, so maybe something in that field.”

It’s difficult to say what I like best about learning with Red Balloon because I like everything! It is all pretty much great! If I could pinpoint one thing that’s made the big difference for me, it’s having a safe place to learn.”

Ethan’s mum, Elaine, shares her experiences:

“Oh my God! Red Balloon is a lifeline for us, as a family. We could absolutely not have coped without it.”

The mainstream education system is great for the majority but there is a minority who just can’t fit in that little pigeonhole, and then you fall out of education system.

Ethan was out of school for pretty much most of Year six, so the transition period into year seven just would not have happened for him. Thank goodness he managed to get a place with Red Balloon.

Ethan’s been at Red Balloon for four years now. At the beginning I was expecting the teachers to be the same as the teachers we’d always dealt with. He was always seen as the naughty kid at school – the child they shouted at and left in a corridor.

He was out of the education system for a very long time. The problems started when he was six, and by the age of eight he had, unfortunately, made two suicide attempts. School was just crazy.

So at Red Balloon it took Ethan a while to trust the teachers. Sam was his first teacher, and he absolutely adored her, and then because he trusted her, he learned that he could trust somebody other than Mum, Dad and Molly.

Christina was his first mentor when he started at Red Balloon, and I remember the day when she first came to the house. Ethan had been sick and he was massively stressed. Then Christina breezed in like a whirlwind and basically took charge in the calmest way possible. At the meeting, I was actually thinking “Oh my God, we can do it, for the first time we can do this, this is achievable”.

So it was only last August [2019] that he went out for the first time and that’s because I’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. With the support and confidence he’s gained from Red Balloon, he’s actually accepted my diagnosis, I think.

“Ethan decided that he wanted to make memories and he knew the only way to make memories was to leave the house. So he’s done that!”

He now meets with Janine, his mentor on his own, so I can be at work. That’s obviously been a big step for him, and Janine’s done it in such a way that he feels comfortable and confident with her.

But he wouldn’t have been able to do that if all he’d learned was Maths, English and Science. What Red Balloon’s also taught him is that not all adults are going to judge him or say mean things to him. I think that’s been the key to his growing confidence.

It was a massive milestone when he went into Red Balloon’s offices in March for his mock Maths GCSE exam. It wasn’t easy for him to go in, and he did feel sick, but he still did it and he sat his exam, so that’s a massive, massive step forward.

“The fact that he knows he’s got a future is invaluable. We absolutely cannot put a word to it or a figure on it, we just can’t.”

For autistic children like Ethan, no matter what the level of autism they’ve got, it does seem to be that routine underpins stability. So Ethan’s got his routine and he’s got his timetable, so he’s managed to carry on even through lockdown times. That’s actually kept his head straight really.

Since we found Red Balloon, it’s been like a whole new world. Ethan has learnt that people are kind; that there are people out there who are not out to get you, and there are those who just want to support you because they can.

Ethan’s very focused that he wants to do GCSEs. Janine’s been brilliant with him, and they talk a lot. They talk online every week and she’ll visit him at home. She’s helped him go through the process of working out his learning path; “what are you trying to do, what are you able to do?”. Although he would normally leave school next year, he’s going to stay another year and take a further three GCSEs. Then he’s going to move on to college, hopefully.

That’s the plan anyway, but for us as a family, it’s important that we have plans, so if I’m not going to be around then Ethan will have continuity and someone he can call on to help with the transition to college. Or if he decides not to go to college, at least he’s got someone there; he trusts Janine implicitly, so he knows he’s got someone to turn to.

Ethan is a massive, massive success story as far as we, as a family, are concerned. He absolutely would not be where he is today without Red Balloon; its reinforced his belief in people. We’re so proud, completely.