In the dusty recesses of my mind, a little voice wonders how my son is viewed by the school district. As a parent of an only child with ASD, I have no way to gauge what’s behind the curtain hidden from my view, inside the non-IEP meetings of the school district about my son. I have no idea how the teachers talk about or view my child between themselves.
And I wonder. Not in the way of pre-judging and expecting the worst. But in the way of a mother concerned for providing my child with the best education, the most respect, and the best methods by which he can learn and develop and grow. In the end, parents are the ones who must ultimately decide what is best for our children.
I remember when I first began my interactions with the public school district which funds part of my son’s “free and appropriate education.” I was advised that there is a special class for autistic children that would be “just perfect” for my son and I was encouraged to go and check it out. The school administrators praised the teacher as one of the best. With an open mind, I took my son to check out the school.
When I arrived, there was a man who met me there named George. George purported to be a facilitator between the school district and special needs parents which never made any sense to me. He was helping me? I felt like he knew very little about autistic children, was awkwardly polite, and out of touch. He seemed like a host at a restaurant trying to seat me at a specific table as directed by the school district.
I was walked back to a trailer in the very back of an old school about 10 miles from where we live. The trailer had a ramp and sat in the middle of a very hot asphalt lot. Outside of the trailer was a play structure, also in the hot sun. Not a tree in sight. The ramp was surrounded by a railing and dead-ended into a doorway with the door propped open and a baby gate blocking the entrance. This was where the autism class took place.
Now, George, our host for this visit, is a very tall man. My son had never been to this school and never met George before. We had just barely stepped into the world of ABA and I was not at all familiar with the idea of preparing my son for new experiences.
George decided he would lead us into the classroom. I told him that he should not go first and step out of the way. I advised him there was no way my son was going into that strange classroom because it was claustrophobic for him especially with a tall stranger standing there. He didn’t get it.
Of course, we had a behavior. My son dug in his heels and started to scream. As politely as I could, I told George to back off. (Okay – so maybe it was not as politely as I could). He finally moved out of the way. After a little talking, I got my son inside.
Now, I would not call me the cleanest or neatest person in the world – by far. But what I saw when I walked into in the trailer, surprised me. It was cluttered, divided with 4 foot tall cubicle walls, stuffed with old toys (and I mean toys from the 60s) and games were stacked and stuffed into and on a shelf, looking like they would all fall off.
There was a swing hanging from a metal bar in a tiny corner. It was one of those fabric swings in which the child is completely wrapped up. (That was the first time I’d seen one – my son had not yet started Occupational Therapy). The swing was in such a small place that there was no room to move it. Next to it, was a small trampoline. The trampoline was set under part of the hanging bar for the swing such that if my son actually jumped on it, he would hit his head on the bar above.
There were three other children in the “class.” One we never saw because he was wrapped in the swing. He was nonverbal. The others were pretty much non-verbal as well. The children were all beautiful but my son was always echolalic. He needed to model language from other children his age to progress to communicative language. That was not going to happen here. This was not a match.
The trailer was crowded with junk. Who could study amidst all this crap? I couldn’t believe it was actually being used for children with sensory issues. The set up was physically unsafe.
Needless to say, I politely declined their invitation to integrate my son there. When I expressed, in a detailed email, the many physical dangers, I was reassured repeatedly that the class was moving out of the trailer in the fall and would be in a larger room. We did not go back.
So, back to my initial question. What was in the minds of the school administrators, who had not yet even minimally interacted with my son to think this would be an ideal environment for him? Well, it was within their budget. It was labeled an “autism” classroom. End of story.
The school district has learned a little bit more about me since that day and I about them. But this was my introduction to their attempt to provide my son with an “appropriate” education. It did teach me one thing.
Don’t trust school administrators and their facilitators. Trust your gut as a parent. You are the one person you know will look out for the best interest of your child.