He refused clothes, except a pair of striped socks, and was non-verbal at 3 years old, when we first entered the school system. Barking, like our family dog, was his form of communication, as he hid under the nearest table. Needless to say, our school district intake meeting did not go well. My son refused to participate in their tests, but he did play with a few of their toys. Armed with our brand new autism diagnosis from a developmental pediatrician, I demanded they help us. An exhausted supervisor, with frazzled hair and far too many wrinkles for her age, shrugged and said, “I’ve got 43 other kids ahead of him.”
We lived right next to an adorable elementary school, and I couldn’t wait for my son to attend, but that was only one of my dreams shattered by our school district. We were informed that my son was not going to that school because of his special needs. We’d have to drive him to a school across the city that was barren, had no parking, and a class for kids like him, meaning mild-to-severely autistic. I tried to stay open minded, but when I toured the school, I cried. Every cell in my body knew this was not the best learning environment for my son. And so we paid out-of-pocket for a private school that had early intervention. We didn’t have the money, but we scraped by.
My son excelled in the program for the next two years, and though his anxiety was still off the charts, he had started talking and could tolerate sitting across the table from the other kids, as long as he had his own space. Before our kindergarten IEP, he knew his numbers, letters, and could read. Surely, he would be going to the adorable school two blocks from our home, but no, our school district denied him that right again, banishing him to a segregated section of a dilapidated building yet again.
I thought about my own school experience as a child. The only child with special needs I knew was a boy in my 5th grade class. Sam. He insisted on wearing his jacket every day in the Arizona heat, sometimes reaching 120 degrees, and he would bite his own arm and shout out the answers as the teacher taught her lessons. He didn’t stay in our class for long, but left a lifelong impression. Mostly, I was curious about Sam and wanted to know more about him. Then in high school, I signed up to be a part of a buddy program, eating lunch once a week with a student with special needs. On my first day, I was ushered into a classroom off the side of the administration offices, and had lunch with a lovely girl with Down syndrome. I hadn’t known this classroom even existed. And where were these students during assemblies? It was as if they went to an entirely different school. I refused to let this be my son’s path.
I found a beautiful school about an hour away from our current apartment. I’d like to say I researched online, or it was recommended to me, but it was more cosmic. I was driving in search of a different school; I had made a wrong turn, and there it was. A massive park and playground surrounded this beautiful elementary school, nestled into a quaint neighborhood. I felt like I had arrived in Mayberry as I walked in and found a helpful staff member who gave me a map of their school district. I just had to move into a place within those lines, and my son could attend this school.
We found a rental home, added an hour to my husband’s commute, and registered my son into the district a week before kindergarten started. They were fearful that they couldn’t meet his needs set by his current IEP, as they didn’t have an exclusive special needs classroom, but we all agreed to give it a go and then make changes if needed. My son started a typical kindergarten class with an aide, and we held our breath to see what would happen.
He blossomed. Although we had some speed bumps, we worked through them. He no longer needed an aide by second grade, and is currently in 7th grade. Besides PE, he loves school, is quite social, and has an excellent GPA, and yes, he still has autism.
If we would have entered him into that mild-to-severe classroom, my son would be flapping his arms and rocking, which were his stimming preferences pre-kindergarten. He stopped those behaviors without anyone asking and instead modeled the students in his classroom. We would have never found his true potential. We would have never known what he was capable of because the expectations were set so low. We would have never unlocked the child inside that needed help to learn and to become the person he is today.
It could have gone the other way as well. He could have been moved out of his typical kindergarten and into a class specifically for kids with special needs, and that would have been okay, too. For me, it was about setting him up for success. We had to try. And if didn’t work, we would have tried the next best thing, but never settling for a class, segregated from the world, as if he was thrown away from society. Inclusion matters. All people matter. And we will never know what a child has to offer the world if they are not given the opportunity to be included.
–Written by Jackie Linder Olson, author of of Peace, Autism, and Love; Edited by KIT staff
Jackie Linder Olson is the co-author of the book series Sensory Parenting, and author of The Waiting Pool. Jackie’s currently blogging at Peace, Autism, and Love, where she’s formed a community for other parents with young children and teenagers on the autism spectrum, sensory processing issues, and on mindful parenting. Prior to Sensory Parenting, she created an award-winning series of instructional occupational therapy and sensory integration DVDs with Britt Collins, OTR/L for parents, teachers and caregivers of special needs children. You may contact her at PeaceAutismandLove@gmail.com
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.