It was a warm morning at the end of August- my boy’s first day of Kindergarten. Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 3, we had done all we could for him. We had used the government help available through our CRDI (Centre de Réadaptation en Défficience Intellectuelle), he followed intense behaviour therapy at home and had learned to communicate one word at a time. By the time Kindergarten rolled around, he could make himself understood and understood others if they spoke slowly and directly to him. I had mixed feelings. I knew he could be integrated into a regular stream Kindergarten classroom and knowing how far he’d come, my mommy heart felt so proud of him. The flip side was that I was being asked to trust the school implicitly. I had no information about how his day would go, whether or not he would have someone with him during the day or whether any of the accommodations I had asked for were in place. Everything seemed to be a secret. The bell rang. I carefully explained that it was time to line up. He did but started to stim in excitement. Let’s just say that standing in line was a little too much for him. I ignored the curious looks from students and parents and decided to go into the school with him since there were no aides outside. I thought it was odd. It’s the first day of school-difficult for any brand-new 5 year-old- and where are the integration aids??? I tried to stay calm as I accompanied him into the locker room. “Find your name tags”, yelled the teacher over the crowd. IF you’re familiar with challenges faced by kids on the spectrum, you can immediately sense trouble. Most kids on the spectrum struggle with language. They can’t attend to what the teacher is saying over the chatter of 40 kids! I looked for name tags (I had twins in Kindergarten!). They were above my head, never mind the heads of these little guys. I watched my boy wander aimlessly around; happy, excited, oblivious…
And, there it was… that feeling in the pit of my stomach that was oh so familiar. The sadness, anxiety and worry that lie dormant until disturbed by life circumstances, were surfacing. I had been warned that this would happen by well-meaning counsellors. The sadness returns during transition periods and this was definitely a HUGE transition.
Sadness turned to anger as I looked around frantically for an aid. There were 4 special-needs kids in this Kindergarten class and I couldn’t find anyone! I looked harder and then I found one, busy with a child having a full blown tantrum. That’s how most of the school year would go, I would later learn. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. The good-natured child with autism by default gets lost in the crowd…
I got my kids settled and lifted my head just in time to see the teacher give me THE nod. “Get out” was implied. I know that parents can be overbearing and I really, really didn’t want to be that parent but WHO was looking out for my boy?
I left with a heavy heart. I cried all the way home. If they allowed the first introduction to Kindergarten to go this badly, how would the rest of the year go?
I am pleased to say that the school year ended much better than expected but there were lessons learned along the way. The biggest one is that the parent needs to be on top of their child’s progress. Some parents don’t have the knowledge or experience to discern when the school is dropping the ball and could definitely benefit from the assistance of an independent special-education professional. Schools try to keep everyone happy and often that means that they juggle resources around to satisfy the loudest parents. You may be a nice person but you must never be a silent parent. Call, ask, listen, suggest, and if need be, complain constructively.
Also it has become crucial that parents put more pressure on school boards to hire qualified aids. A qualified aid can make all the difference in a child’s life but unfortunately, there are people doing the job that are kind and loving but without specific skills. If you feel that you need an aid more qualified and more suited to your child’s needs, say so!
Finally, as much as possible, be around and be visible. Join the governing board, pick up and drop off your kids, volunteer and always keep your eyes and ears open. I learned so much about what was happening in the classroom from listening and observing. Also, make acquaintance with other parents of special-needs kids. There is definitely strength in numbers.
The last day of school was very different than the first. I knew the teachers very well. One of them was such a wonderful help and encouragement for my son. When I asked the school to consider re-thinking their teaching methods, she was my advocate, quickly understanding my point of view and willing to make adjustments for us. As I listened to the kids sing the songs they had worked so hard on, watched my boy try his best to sing along, gently cheered on by Miss Emily, his wonderful integration aid, I said a prayer of thanks. It’s now the beginning of August and you can guess, after a wonderful summer, where my mind is going. Time to do it all again… Let’s see what grade 1 holds!