Thursday, September 23, 2010

Educational choices for our children with Autism

So here comes the drama post! It has been a very busy month or so. Here's what happened. I had been in constant contact with my son's teacher. I was volunteering weekly and in contact via email in addition to address some issues we were both seeing. The main issue being focus and needing to be redirected for weekly math tests and math worksheets. It was a very different classroom this year, a big change in classmates as well as schedule and amount of work expected so I expected a period of adjustment. So the teacher and I spoke about many things and one of those was whether the all day format was a better fit for him or not. He was currently in a program where the day is shortened, they only had 1 recess, but he was at school for less time. Now, this is a mainstream school, they support our IEP but it is not a school specifically for children with special needs. At the end of last year we all spoke about which format would be best. I personally believe that our kids spend too much of their time in school and we expect way too much of them too soon at these early ages. I understand people have different viewpoints on this but that is how I feel. That and the fact that we had a very good therapy schedule set and less time in the classroom really seemed like a good idea. I was assured by our 1st grade teacher when I broached this topic that the longer day really wouldn't help in the areas where we needed it and that the pace was not that much slower. OK. So what do we need to do to help him be successful? I came up with some ideas, as did the teacher and I contacted special ed at the school.

I got an immediate response. They had their Autism specialist observe him in the class and had some additional ideas at our meeting. My husband and I felt heard and supported when we left, having a clear vision of what they were going to do to help us make sure our son was successful. We grabbed lunch and then it was time for our parent/teacher conference next. As we walked in my husband said that basically this was just a formality right? I said yes, we've touched base so much, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the situation. The teacher knew about our meeting with spec ed prior and asked us about it. I expressed my enthusiasm and happiness over their response and shared some of what they said. The basic takeaway was that most of what they saw could be handled in the classroom with some supports/suggestions given to the teacher and that pull out did not appear necessary. Apparently that was NOT what she wanted to hear. Again, I thought we were on the same page as to the help my son needed and her feelings on the subject. The parent/teacher conference took a detour south at that point. The bottom line was that she was telling us he could not be successful in that classroom, not even WITH the suggestions/supports special ed had suggested. WOW. I told her that because of issues like fine motor delay and auditory processing and auditory sensitivities, we'd have to adjust the expectations accordingly. I told her how his kindergarten teacher really rolled with the punches and she figured out ways to asses what he knew so that when a task came where it really pushed him in those weaker areas, she could set attainable goals. We were told "I have higher standards". I told her that the Autism specialist at school had the same suggestions, we need to meet him where he is to encourage that feeling of success, not set him up for failure.

My husband said as we left "I thought you were going to ghetto on her". Over the years I have learned that you pull that out only when you really, really need it. Don't get me wrong, catch me on the wrong day and it could get ugly. But, I could tell her words were coming from frustration, not malice. Now my emotions quickly morphed into anger over that weekend but I have worked very hard on NOT responding out of emotion, especially anger, until I can process it a little and look at the various sides. But, here was a teacher who even said to me "I feel like a failure because I don't know how to teach him". I think we are going to see this issue as a common theme in getting our children educated. Especially those kiddos, like mine, who seems to be in "no man's land". They don't need the Autism specific programs anymore but do need a little help in a mainstream class. Sometimes the teachers have a hard time understand all of the issues that go into a disorder like Autism. And one big factor this year was class dynamics as well. Not only were there teacher issues but also kid issues.

So, I sent him back to school Mon/Tues and then said "forget it". I kept him home. I sent an email to the teacher basically saying I can't be fake, I cannot believe you said to me what you did about my child. I did not work the last 6 years of my life removing obstacles from my son's way that prevented him from learning more effectively to short change my son when it comes to his education. I told her that I felt she was telling us that we were letting him off easy in his education by changing the range of what we expect. I told her it was like telling a child in a wheelchair to walk up the stairs to reach the top because everyone else was.

Believe me, I was formulating my next step. Wed I got a call from the Principal. We played phone tag and I tried to set up an appt for the following day. Thurs I got a call from the head of special ed, she must have heard rumblings. I told her the whole story. She was shocked and dismayed. Within 30 min both she and the Principal were on the phone, scheduling a meeting for the following Wed (we had Labor Day holidays in between, Fri and Mon). They asked if I was ok sending him to school after the Labor Day holiday on Tues. I said I would.

Tues he got held in from recess, for not finishing his writing. Oy vey! Can you say fine motor issues??? My meeting on Wed went well, but again, we had very good meetings with special ed before. I told them he was held in from recess, the special ed director looked very upset at that and immediately said that would not happen again. We had even been given suggestions from spec ed to give him MORE opportunities to move, the child (and EVERY child) needs movement to facilitate the learning process. Holding him in from recess is only going to make all of those issues worse, not better. They asked if we were in a place where we'd consider working with them on new placement or working with the teacher to determine how to move forward. We said yes. All that week my son was sent into the hall because he "got frustrated". To me that is a sensory issue that was not addressed and escalated when it probably didn't need to. Or it was (as I saw first hand) an issue of another child antagonizing him to the point where he melts down and yet unless you were watching you can't really tell that it was the interaction with that other child that caused the reaction. On Fri he was sent into the hall 4 times. No one else is sent into the hall. Way to set him apart even more. Mom is done at this point.

I did not send him to school Monday. He'd also had a very busy weekend, his bday party and a friend's birthday party and the foods with sugar and possible cross contamination were catching up. Sending him in with those reactions would have been a recipe for disaster anyways. I got an email saying they wanted to put him into an all day class. I told them no thanks and proceeded with homeschool. We have great therapy schedules set and losing those was only going to make all of the issues worse in my mind. I had already begun to think of the unthinkable....dun dun dun.....homeschool. I only say this because I thought I would fail miserably at it, I was resistant to it, said I would "never" homeschool, etc etc. But you do what you have to do. The school came back and said they were heartbroken over our decision, wouldn't we consider looking at the new class. Then I began to think about potentially regretting it if I did not explore ALL of the options. We sat in for an hour and a half of the new class. It seemed to be made up of those "gentle souls". The teacher gave the kids many chances to move their body in the time we saw, we watched their math lesson since M was struggling there. They use a smart board (which is so cool) that the kids get to use.

After class let out I stood and talked with the teacher. She was honest, she said she had never had a child with Autism in her class before but she considers communication very important back and forth. I totally agreed. I explained some of the issues (food allergies, fine motor, auditory, etc). The next day I took M in to see the class and meet her. Every Fri is a half day so we went just after the kids were released. There were only 2 children in the room, one boy he really seemed to hit it off with in just those few minutes. After just a few minutes, we were ready to leave and he gave her a hug, a good sign. I spoke with a mom whose daughter is in the class, one of our kindergarten families. She had only good things to say about the teacher thus far.

Monday was his 1st day in that new class after being homeschool all of the prior week. We are still in the adjustment period. He is seeing old kindergarten friends he missed in the morning before the whistle blows which he loves. He is coming home with completed math sheets (something he was not able to do before) and math seems to be "clicking" for him this week. I have gotten emails from the new teacher every day after school. I love that! And they have been "He had a good day, stayed focused and on task". NICE! I love to hear that.

See, I KNOW our kids can be successful, it takes the right teacher and the right environment. And that is why I am so thankful (yes you heard me) for this experience. Up to this point, we have had nothing but good experiences with school/teachers. This experience taught me that not only will I do exactly what is necessary for my children, but that I CAN homeschool if I choose. I also see homeschooling in a whole new way. It gave me the freedom to teach my child in whatever way he/she learns best. I could use whatever format, medium, curriculum I needed to. And, I know them best, hands down. We got SO much done in just a few hours! It was amazing how much you could cover without all of the "processes" of school. I am also not scared of the social issue that so many want to bring up when you say homeschooling. Knowing me, I polled lots of people, including my therapist friends who know a lot about Autism and social issues. They all consistently said the same thing, the social part is easy! Parks, playdates, karate class, boy scouts, etc. are all various ways to encourage that social component. My issue was the social interaction he was getting in school was BAD. To me, bad social is not better than less social.

All in all, I only have good things to say about the way special ed and the Principal responded and handled this issue. It clearly was an issue with bad teacher/student fit. As I told the teacher, I get how frustrating it can be *I really do*! I had my own ideas of mother hood and M came along and pulverized them! He challenges you to think outside the box to motivate him, to teach him, to enrich him. It is possible, it can be an amazing experience, and YOU get to grow right along with him. I speak from experience on this one, heck he got me homeschooling him, LOL. M will make YOU grow as much as you make him grow. He is an amazing child, as are both of his sisters, and my commitment will always to give them what THEY need, no matter what.

I am also thankful for my newly acquired meditation skills or the last month would have been harder than it was. This whole process has been stressful but I think my way of dealing with the stress is better, at least I keep on trying anyways! So here's to change (since that is the only thing constant in this house!) and new beginnings! Change used to be a scary word but I have realized, change is much better than sticking with something that isn't working. Hope YOUR last few weeks has been a lot less stressful than mine!!

And my next blogs will be about yummy treats!!


Matt and Brianna said...

Ugh! I am so sorry you have had this whole mess to deal with! I hope and pray I can handle such issues as gracefully as you! Well, I hope we don't have these issues :) But good luck with this new class! Sounds like things are definitely going better!

Anonymous said...

This is my first visit to your blog and I'm astounded. Why? Because our son had almost exactly the same AWFUL experience in 1st grade. And we ended up home schooling him! :-) In fact, I just blogged about this a few hours ago.

Good for you for examining all the options, and doing everything necessary to get what's best for your child. And good for the school for arranging a better teacher. AND good for the teacher for being awesome. Especially in light of the fact that she's never had an Autistic student before.

You're right. Our children can be successful. With a mom like you, it certainly seems M will have no trouble getting there.

Well done!