May 20, 2012
It’s 8:30 on a bright, clear May morning, and I’m grateful we’ve finally had a turn in the weather as I trudge on up to the garage that babysat my car overnight. Zach’s IEP meeting is in an hour, and I know I’ll have enough time to claim my vehicle and make it to his pre-school, but I keep my pace at a good clip just to be certain. It’s only Thursday, but it’s been a long week. Three doctors visits with my youngest child, an unidentifiable illness that thankfully did not turn out to be the “scary alternative”, a nail in my tire driving home from said appointment, and an unscheduled “second spring break” with Zach have all frankly worn me out. I pick up my stride just a bit to get my adrenaline going, because this morning’s meeting is the big kahuna, and I need to be on top of my game.
Today, with my son’s child study team, is the day we talk kindergarten.
I’ve requested all his testing material ten days in advance which is within my rights, and frankly I’m going to be very curious to see what the excellent practitioners who comprise my son’s educational world suggest for next year. He’s made staggering progress since he started there a little over two years ago, back when he was a young lad not even three years of age with a somewhat limited vocabulary, and an absolute obsession with Thomas the Train. Half a presidential term later he gives eloquent speeches on the merits of carnivorous dinosaurs versus the herbivorous species, tells everyone who will listen he wants to be a paleontologist, a firefighter, and a dad, and is fascinated by (but not limited to), the entire Transformer family.
Thomas, of course, is so yesterday.
Given the leaps and bounds he’s made I’m wondering which program they’ll suggest he attend, all of which I’ve seen, and all of which have their merits. Kindergarten is still a half day endeavor in this town, and I feel fortunate that if he can handle it he has the option of participating for two-and-a-half hours daily, which I feel will be exactly the right amount of time for him next year. There are also two other choices for after- mainstreaming, both of which involve a self-contained classroom where he could continue to work on his social skills and his often impulsive behavior, the latter of which his parents, teachers, and pediatricians feel is now his biggest stumbling block to full inclusion.
We’ve recently had Zach evaluated at CHOP, and while he still retains that mild autism diagnosis, the entire team at Children’s Hospital felt that he merited an ADHD diagnosis as well, and that the latter diagnosis now more accurately represented him than the former. As an educator I have to admit I was elated, because there are so many strategies to help lesson some of the more severe symptoms of ADHD (many of which I used in my career), and quite honestly, there are a vast array of medications to help as well. Autism doesn’t have as many medicinal options, as we rediscovered this past spring when Justin became ill, and the drug he was taking seemed to completely stop working.
I’m a girl who likes having choices. I’m happy there will be so many for Zach.
I finally make it to the garage and claim my car, and scoot over to my son’s pre-school which is mere minutes away. As I navigate the side roads of Jersey I admit I’m also curious as to which “label” Zach will receive for next year, i.e. one with autism in it, or one such as “otherwise health impaired”, which is doled out for children who have everything from hearing impairment to ADHD. I don’t care which one he’ll receive, as long as it garners him every service and the type of program he requires to succeed. I’ve learned long ago that labels aren’t the important issue, no matter how formidable they may sound. Services, and the educators who provide them, are the key.
And to date I’m so happy and grateful to say, from Early Intervention to pre-school, this child has had the best.
I make it to the meeting with a good ten minutes to spare, and am soon welcomed warmly into the conference room. There are no introductions necessary as I know all of these educators well, and we promptly get down to business. According to his dual diagnoses he still qualifies for special education services, and becomes the beneficiary of the “otherwise health impaired” monacre, which the team agrees now fits him best. As we move on to his test results I am momentarily distracted by the image of my son four years ago after his regression, where within a matter of weeks he lost his almost all of his words, his strong desire for social interaction, and the innate curiosity that dominated his soul. He’s come so very far from those dark days.
And so much of his transformation is due to the people sitting in this room.
After a lengthy interpretation of the many tests required to secure him a recurring spot in special ed, we discuss which program will best suit my son. A four- hour program is suggested, one which offers him both the challenge of mainstreaming for the first time without the safety net of an aide, as well as a small-class setting in which to work on more of his individual goals. I’ve discussed this possibility with his wonderful case manager before, but I admit I’m holding my breath a bit as I ask for him to begin in the mainstream classroom from day one, as a fully included student. No special accommodations will be made for him, other than that the special education teacher who works in tandem with the regular education teacher will devote some of her energies, and time, to him.
I admit I’m both nervous as to what the team will say, as well as concerned about the prospect of him moving from a class of twelve with a 4:1 teacher/student ratio, to a class of twenty with a ratio of 10:1. I don’t want my son to flounder. I want him to fly. The speech teacher looks at me and says something close to, “Of course, let’s try it and let him rise to the occasion. After all, our goal is full mainstreaming by first grade.” I turn toward Zach’s pre-school teacher who’s nurtured and instructed him for two years, and I don’t see her batting an eye. Of course, we won’t know how he’ll handle things until he actually gets in there this fall. Frankly, a lot can happen in four months, for the good and the bad.
But that full inclusion carrot is dangling in mid-air, and I admit, I’m greedy for it.
We quickly conclude the rest of our business together, with brief discussions on how Justin is doing, as well as inquiries made about new additions to certain child study team’s families. An hour plus later we conclude our meeting, one which has been conducted both cordially, and professionally. It was so apparent when every team member spoke of my son how much they respected, enjoyed, and liked my child. I think of how many unhappy parents I encounter or read about on a weekly basis, and once again I am so grateful for what my child has received, the care and cunning that went into creating his educational program for the past two years.
I head out to my car, and this thought creeps into my very tired brain. I hope the future entails that carrot for Zach, because it gives him choices in life, and because he wants the things that full inclusion entails. I think about how proud I’ll be of him regardless of whether our carefully crafted plan works, because he is simply an amazing kid, and always tries so hard. I think about how I’m equally proud of our older child who will never be a part of that world, who is best served at a private school for autism, and I am guessing will always be best served by that brand of education. I remember that we are just concluding teacher appreciation week, and for a moment I am overcome by emotion, by the bounty that exceptional educators have brought to both of my sons’ lives.
And as I have done many, many times over the last eight years that we’ve been on this autism journey, I thank the universe once again for the glory of a good teacher.