School starts two weeks from today, and both Tosh and I are really looking forward to it.
However, for many parents of autistic children, a new school year produces feelings of fear, dread and guilt.
I used to be one of those parents. I feared Tosh wasn’t being taught the academic knowledge and skills he will need to become the best possible version of himself. I dreaded the new negative behaviors he would pick up from other students. And I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more to provide him with a better education.
In Spring of 2017, I did something about it. Fed up with what a lack of academic progress in Tosh’s neighborhood public school, I enrolled him in a charter school that didn’t have facilities to support small classroom special ed. That meant he would be 100% mainstreamed.
The exposure to neurotypical kids provided Tosh with invaluable positive behavior modeling. After just the first week, he was a different boy. The most obvious improvement was increased self-sufficiency. Suddenly, he wanted to do everything by himself. I could also see he was trying harder to control the volume of his voice and socialize appropriately.
Ultimately, a 100% mainstream environment was too much. After peaking in September, his behavior became more aggressive and problematic, and by the end of the school year, it was obvious we had to make a change.
But I didn’t feel discouraged. I felt confident.
We had learned that Tosh couldn’t handle a mainstream environment all day long, but exposure to mainstream students supported his educational goals. Thanks to the charter school’s IEP, written before we transferred back to public school, that benefit was in writing, supported by quantifiable reporting.
We had also learned that we have options, and we aren’t afraid to explore them. We returned to our public school system, but we could have continued at the charter school with a combination of home study and on-campus education. We also could have put our application in with a private school that specializes in autism. Those options are still there, if we change our mind again.
When we returned to our local school district, I exercised my right to an intradistrict transfer and placed him in a different school. It has been a completely different – read better – experience.
The administration at his new school is more supportive of special education and doesn’t micromanage it. Before, at our IEP meetings, every single request I made was shut down by the principal, who declared, “sorry, we don’t have the resources for that.” He didn’t even have resources for commonly accepted accommodations required by law. “So sue me,” seemed to be his strategy.
At our new school, the principal didn’t even attend Tosh’s IEP meeting and my requests were met with a team brainstorm of ways to make them happen. I didn’t get everything I asked for exactly the way I wanted, but we truly share the goal of educating Tosh, and that’s all that matters.
To be honest, much of the improvement came from within me. Armed with more knowledge about the special education process, the confidence to ask for what Tosh needs and a better understanding of my role in his success, I built a better foundation.
Here are my tips as you look forward to another school year.
Heather Anderson is a blissfully happy autism mom and lover of life in Southern California who is on a mission to help autism parents rediscover their happy place.
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