Posts tagged ‘playground’

Lessons learned

      I never knew looking for a new school for C would be such an adventure. We saw it all. Having realized that the giant public school model is no longer a fit for C, off we went to explore some pretty interesting places about as far from the neighborhood school as one could get.

     First it was the excellent charter school in a yuck part of town in an even more yuck facility. We almost left before we walked in the door. But the class C would have been in had ten kids from 4th-6th grade, and is taught by a teacher with a special education background. Very cool for the 4th grader who has some awesome math skills. The place would have been a no-brainer if it weren’t for, well, just about everything else. No specials to speak of, and the playground was beyond dismal.

     Lesson learned: first impressions sometimes are everything.

     Then came the interesting private Christian school that I have wanted to visit for two years. With less than twenty kids in the whole school, I figured C would get all kinds of individual attention. But looking at it online and visiting are two different things: it is run by a large-hearted, barefooted, grubby guy who looks and speaks like he did a few too many hits of acid in the 60s. The old house-made-church-made-school was piled with I’m not sure what, and the layer of filth worthy of a few bottles of clorox did not please my allergy-sensitive nose. It was an interesting place with interesting kids, but it wasn’t the place for my interesting kid.

     Lesson learned: apparently there is such a thing as bohemian Christianity – two words I never expected to see that close together.

     We then visited the more traditional Christian private school, with properly coiffed little ones behaving perfectly and scoring well on their achievement tests. Everything was fine until I dared mention “Asperger’s,” which sent the principal into a tizzy of, “Well, we’ll have to test him thoroughly with our resource teacher to see if he can handle the rigor before we could even consider admitting a child like him…” back-pedaling. I’m pretty sure he equates special education with stupidity, and I was non-plussed, given that C could probably out-math any kid in that school. No amount of my bringing up C’s AIMS scores, grades, or abilities got the principal back onto the “We have a wonderful school here” track. And when the principal himself pointed out how small C is right in front of him, well, that was the end of that.

     Lesson learned: good Christians do not necessarily good people make.

     Finally, there came the school we almost skipped visiting because it’s further away than we’d like. But the principal answered the questions I wanted to ask – in the way that I wanted him to answer them – before I asked them. “We have the classroom teachers go out with the kids at recess because they know our kids far better than an aide would, and they’ll know right away if there are problems,” he said just before I asked about recess. “Ms. J is a nurturing, kind teacher who has a very gentle spirit with the kids,” he said about the 4th grade teacher right before I was planning to ask about her. 

     It was a done deal before we walked out the door: this was the school. We still visited four more schools after this one, but none measured up. I find myself wondering why we didn’t switch years ago, and when I read the Principal’s welcome letter to parents, it only served to reinforce our decision. At C’s new school, “children don’t have to fit the system…[teachers] appreciate individual strengths and reinforce them with frequent praise…[children are] given the opportunities to express ideas in different ways.”

     Lesson learned: Find the place that encourages C to be the kid he is, without trying to make him be like all the other kids.


September 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm 12 comments

It’s done

     After a mere two weeks and one day, we pulled C from his school. We had been contemplating it since he started at this school last year, but we were pleasantly surprised when he had a pretty good year in third grade. We knew things would change as he went along, and we expected that around sixth grade, his school situation would likely have to change. Sadly, we only made it to fourth.

     Even more sad is that we are pulling him mostly because of what goes on during a mere 35 minutes of his day. 35 minutes in which the public school system (yes the “system” –  I don’t for one minute think this problem is unique to C’s school) has completely and utterly failed this child.

     It all started with lunch. I walked in only to see him sitting all alone at a table for 20 while every other table was completely full. C’s sometimes utter aloneness in a sea of children is often too much for me to bear. Part of his IEP includes having an adult help facilitate conversations between C and other children during situations like these. He wasn’t alone because he wanted to be; he was alone because it didn’t occur to him to ask someone to join him. Then to hear C chastised by an adult for not inviting someone to sit with him, well, that was about the end of the rope for me. I figured if the people working with him don’t get it by now, perhaps they never will, and I’m not about to wait around to find out. 

     Then it got worse. Far worse. He went out for recess, and with 130 kids on the playground and two aides, what I didn’t expect to happen this soon almost did. I saw it all from afar as I sat in the parking lot watching, tears streaming down my face. I watched C crying and arguing because he got called “out” of a kickball game I don’t think he was even being included in to begin with. Before I knew it, he was surrounded by several very large kids who were yelling at him and threatening him. He was, in my opinion, within seconds of getting punched in the face by a kid so big I thought he was an adult. Thankfully the situation defused itself, but not before it all happened a second time.

     There was no adult within 100 yards of C, and certainly no one was watching him. I know this because I was watching them not watching him. Oh, I understand there are a lot of kids to watch out there, but he is one that they are supposed to be keeping a special eye on simply because he is so incredibly vulnerable, and his social skills – in an unfacilitated situation such as this one – are so undeveloped. 

     The near violence at recess was the push off the edge that convinced me his experience at this school was over. Upon later discussion with C, it became clear he didn’t even realize how dangerous the situation was – which shows me he’s even more vulnerable than I thought.

     So he’s set to start a new school on Tuesday, one where we don’t expect perfection, but one that seems to not only celebrate kids in all their forms, but also seems to teach the kids to celebrate other kids in all their forms. It is with heavy heart that we leave a teacher we loved and the traditional public school system – which we have believed in so strongly for so long. It makes me sad that the public school system in general seems to have such a difficult time helping the very children who perhaps need it the most.

August 30, 2010 at 6:19 am 10 comments

Skip a dee doo dah

     Kids pick on such weird things. My attempts to help C blend in are an effort to keep that teasing on a lesser scale. I say “blend in” almost rhetorically because C doesn’t blend in and frankly, I don’t really want him to. His uniqueness is what makes him so very delightful.

     So my first response this morning, when the school’s physical therapist called to tell me C no longer qualifies for services in this area, was to be frustrated. Has she ever actually seen him run? Has she seen, as I have, the countless episodes of tittering that goes on behind his back as he runs by the other kids on the playground? (I used to say he ran like Forrest Gump; now he runs like Phoebe on the episode of “Friends” where Rachel was embarrassed to run with her because she looked so goofy when she ran.) Watching C run makes adults smile, but the kids just see a dorky little kid blowing by with body parts flying everywhere.

     Oh, I know, running doesn’t really have anything to do with C’s education. At least that’s what the physical therapist will say at his IEP meeting on Wednesday. And I know Arizona, like no other state I know, is very generous in giving kids PT in school – even kids in wheelchairs didn’t qualify in the other states where C has attended school.

     Still, I know better. The thing that the physical therapist doesn’t seem to understand is that for C, his educational health has everything to do with his emotional health. At the moment, he doesn’t see those other kids teasing him behind his back. But the second he realizes what is going on, the school will have a changed child on their hands. C will become, like every other time he’s realized the kids are teasing him, sad, scared, frustrated, and confused. C will suffer, and his education will then suffer. Oh, how I wish this woman understood that. I will do my best to make her understand, but if she doesn’t get it already I’m not hopeful I’ll win this particular battle.

     As I watched C skip across a parking lot today looking very much like a four-year old just learning how to do that very difficult task, I couldn’t help but smile despite my frustration in losing the very person who could help him master the art of skipping. Yet the fact that he was singing “Zip-a-dee-do-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, my oh my, what a wonderful day,” AS he was skipping across the parking lot merely added to my joy in the fact that C will never, ever simply “blend in.”

May 11, 2010 at 5:08 am 10 comments

Breaking up is hard to do

     When I was in college, I pledged a sorority. I didn’t really want to, but my parents encouraged me with stories of how much their lives were enriched by Greek clubs while they were in college. The short version is that the hazing, something I have never really fully put behind me, changed my college experience entirely. The final straw for me, however, was talking to a pledge sister about the hazing, hoping we could change the experience for the next year’s pledges. “I can’t wait until next year,” she said, “when I can pass all of that hazing on and do it to the next group to come through.” That was it for me; I quit.

     The difference between C’s experience and mine is that my experience was voluntary on my part. C has had no such choice in how kids treat him. Yet recently, I discovered how quickly the tides can turn. C has “infiltrated,” for lack of a better word, a group of two boys and become the third in that group. I have watched this friendship develop with a certain amount of trepidation because of the tightness of the original two combined with an autism diagnosis for one of the boys. I suspect it was just as hard for “Andrew” to make friends as it has been for C, and I was concerned that in this situation, three might be more than a crowd.

     When C came home from school today saying that Andrew told C and “Billy” that he wanted to “break up” with them, I was immediately on alert. C talked about how he, Billy, and Andrew were playing a game, and Billy started to tease Andrew a little bit. C apparently joined in the teasing against Andrew, and from his description of the event to me, I’d say it was with a certain amount of joy.

     Whether C relished the new-found feeling of being tight enough with someone that the two of them could be against a third, or if he’s just so happy to have a friend that he will follow whatever comes along I’m not sure. What amazes me, however, is how quickly this can happen. In a span of days, C went from being the odd one out to the one excluding another. I was nothing short of stunned, having never seen this type of behavior from C before.

     I suppose it feels so unusual for C to be on the giving instead of the receiving end that consideration of another’s feelings just flew out the window. It’s all harmless playground drama for most kids, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that has hurt C so much in the past. The irony of the fact that Andrew also has a special needs diagnosis is not lost on me. I’m hopeful C will quickly realize that being on either end of the teasing specturm is sad and make nice with Andrew once again. And in a world where three is almost always a crowd, two boys with autism and a third – who is also not your average joe kid – might make for more than one friendship group can survive.

October 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm 5 comments

Sometimes the sword beats the pen

     I write a lot about the playground and friends (most truly, here). Would that the playground equalled friends for my C, but alas, it rarely does. Whoever had the not so great idea to throw a bunch of kids into an unfacilitated situation with minimal supervision did not an autism child have. We tend to think that if we just put kids together, they will learn things; things like social skills and how to make a friend. It actually does work that way for most kids, but there’s always those special few who either learn something you didn’t intend for them to learn or they spend their free time wandering the fence line.

     Enter a great Mom. She got tired of watching her child with autism wander the fence line, sometimes playing near other children, but rarely actually playing with other children. She got tired of the tears in her eyes as she watched her child struggle with loneliness that only she could see, so she did something about it. (Does she sound like me? I wish. Read on.) She called in the experts, the fabulous folks at the local autism research and resource center and asked for help. They, in turn, developed the coolest, most real life functional program I’ve ever seen to help our kids thrive on the playground, and the data from the pilot programs is astounding. Using the simple formula of a well-intentioned playground aide or two, a quickly trained peer, and our target audience kids, interaction happens. Meaningful interaction. It seems so simple. It is so simple.

     I proposed that we incorporate this program into our district, and our district responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” So next week, a team of eight of us will attend a training in this program so that we can bring it to C’s 3rd grade playground. Eight lovely people who have kids like C in their hearts and minds. They understand how difficult making friends can be, and they are going to do their best to make sure these kids aren’t alone.

     Finally, it feels good to be doing something about this instead of just writing about it. I can’t wait to see it go live.

September 14, 2009 at 6:11 am 4 comments

Dear Grandmother from the park:

     You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you. You see, I used to be just like you, although I never would’ve been as vocal about it. I was one of those people in the grocery store who couldn’t stand the sound of a screaming child. I still can’t stand it, but not for the same reasons: now I wonder if the child is overly sensitive to sound and light, or if they have been stretched past their point of self-control.  I don’t always assume kids are “typical” anymore because sometimes it’s so hard to tell. How I wish you knew this fact.

     You see, this wasn’t our first visit to the train park. My son loves that place more than just about anywhere else on earth, and we’ve worked very hard to make visiting there pleasant for all of us. We’ve been going for years, but going with a friend is something he’s never experienced. I took him and his one friend, the first real friend he’s ever had, there after school. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him as excited as he was that day, hands flapping as I picked them up, jumping up and down as we waited in line for the train.

     Perhaps it was my mistake, but after years of his begging, I finally agreed to let him ride in the enclosed kids’ caboose in the back. I’ve never let him go on the caboose because I wasn’t sure how he’d handle it. What if it terrified him? There’s nothing that can be done until the train ride is over, and I can’t be in there with him to help him. But this time, with his special friend, I thought perhaps it was time.

     Sure enough, he screamed the entire time – but happily. Stopping only to breathe, he continued his high-pitched, excited screaming for pretty much the whole ride around the park. In the car in front of the caboose, just far enough away that he couldn’t hear me, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was clearly so thrilled to be in that caboose he couldn’t even contain himself. Yet at the same time, I suspected some of the other kids didn’t like it, despite some of their eager participation in the screaming themselves.

    When the train stopped, I waited outside the caboose, speech prepared to remind him that when other people make loud, unexpected noises it scares him, and how he needs to remember there are other people around. Of course he let out one last little screech, which prompted you to scream yourself, so angrily, “Oh, STOP that SCREAMING already!”  Everyone standing there snapped their heads up at your tone, except my C, who was oblivious. Fortunately, you weren’t even on the train yourself (your granddaughter being able to go alone), so you didn’t witness the entire trip. Although I’m sure your granddaughter filled you in on the highlights.

     I had the chat with my C, after which he was appropriately chagrined. I saw you take your granddaughter over to the carousel, and I thought about approaching you to explain. I wanted so desperately to educate you about what we’ve gone through to get where we are. I wavered, not wanting to seem like a parent who makes excuses for their child, but also not wanting you to get away with feeling so self-righteous about this supposedly horribly behaved child of mine. I was so angry at you and people like you I wanted to strike a figurative blow for all of us parents out there who work so hard to even take our kids anywhere. We try so hard to protect your sensibilities, but frankly, I’m a little fed up at this point with worrying about people like you.

     So I find myself thinking it’s a good thing you are blessed with the lovely, quiet, seemingly well-behaved little granddaughter you seem to have, because I suspect if there were any hints of issues, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. It would probably surprise you to know how lucky and blessed I think I am. Wherever you are, oh grandmother, I hope you know how lucky and blessed you are.

November 23, 2008 at 10:07 pm 16 comments

We are the champions

    When something happens, good or bad, C often tells me the story in bits and pieces, sometimes over a period of days. Because his perception of events is often different than other people’s, he sometimes doesn’t tell me what I need to know in order to fully understand the situation and help him process it. I’ve grown better at asking the right questions to get to the bottom of something while still allowing his telling of the story to be in his way.

     The other day at school, a boy in C’s class called him a “loser.” The interesting piece of the story here is that C was running to get a ball at the time, and he got it. He took the word “loser” so literally as to mean he lost the race to get the ball. His point was that he DID get the ball, so he was a “winner.” He was upset, not because the boy meant something far more all-encompassing than C’s understanding of the word, but because the boy was technically wrong. 

     I was so thankful in that moment that he doesn’t comprehend the connotations of the word. I was so grateful that he sees things in black and white so he didn’t understand how awful and powerful a word it can be. For him it’s about the definition, not the nuance. Yet someday he will understand that word, and all its negative undertones. For that, I fear, he is sorely under-prepared (aren’t we all?). I can only hope when I told him that he is in fact a winner, it, like the other positive things we try to say to him whenever possible, settled into his psyche enough to help counteract some of what will surely come down the road.

April 14, 2008 at 8:42 am 3 comments

It’s all autism, all the time.

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