Tuesday, December 20, 2005

LEARNING FROM CHILDREN

Today our son’s kindergarten class held its Christmas program -- and yes, it was called a “Christmas” program and not a “Holiday” program. The children, dressed like cowboys and cowgirls for a Wild West Christmas, approached the microphone in groups of two or three and recited little lines in between songs sung by the entire class.

When it came time for his lines, our little man performed like a champ. He walked up with the two little girls he was teamed with, and recited his part without a hitch, albeit with the articulation problems that make his speech a little difficult to understand for the uninitiated:
Next to the chimney we sit and wait,
We hope that Santa won’t be late.
Some hang stockings, but we put boots,
To be filled with sweets and horns that toot.

Not only did he get all the words out, just as we had rehearsed so many times, but he even pulled the mike a little closer to him and stayed a few seconds longer than his friends to relish the spotlight a little. My son has clearly inherited my proclivities to hamdom.

The songs were another story. From the first song, it became clear that our boy was over-excited. Instead of singing and dancing along with his classmates, he stood at the end of the line and stimmed. Apparently, our son’s excited inability to fully participate was anticipated, for his aide was sitting on the floor adjacent to the line, and he sat out most of the musical numbers in her lap.

Being the parent of an autistic child in a mainstream classroom tends to make one defensive. I stood poised to answer any ignorant comments or inappropriate eye-rolling with Kristina’s deceptively simple explanation of “my son has autism.” As it turns out, explanations were unnecessary.

To be sure, our son elicited more than his share of smiles and chuckles from the assembled parents, but I detected no hint of mean-spiritedness. Instead, it seemed like every person in the room was rooting for our little boy. How in the name of Father Christmas did we end up in such a pocket of enlightenment? After thinking about it awhile, the answer was obvious.

From the very beginning of the school year, our teacher made sure that the other children understood their classmate’s “difference.” On occasion, we’ve heard from other parents how much their kids talk about our son, and we’ve never been sure how to take that. But now we know.

The other parents of the class have been getting lessons in compassion from their children. Those children accept our son as one of them. And their parents are not going to be caught being less mature than the average kindergartner.

Despite a spirit of cooperation on the part of our local school system, my wife and I are still struggling to get our son the services he needs to realize his potential. Much of the problem appears to be that the special education personnel seem unprepared to deal with the level of autism -- both quantitative and qualitative -- we now see in our schools. It then becomes incumbent upon the parents to become the specialists, and educate the educators about what needs to be done. That process can become frustrating. Until I see the process fail, however, I’m not prepared to say that our local school district has become mired in what Tina Giovanni calls the “epidemic of denial.”

In the meantime, we’ve been given a glimmer of Christmas hope, not by the special education teachers and specialists, but by an extraordinary kindergarten teacher and the children of her class.

9 Comments:

Anonymous MAría Luján said...

Wade
I almost was in tears reading your blog. Our history with my son this year in the kinder was so similar to yours.John is 5 years and he is not talking properly. In fact he begun recently to talk more but during his 3rd year and 4rd year he talked very little. We are catholic and my children go to a catholic school. WE struggled to get an aide for him in this mainstream school and the kinder made a special project to get one aide besides the teacher of his class.My son is GFCFSF and the efforts of the teacher and the way the other children and children´s parent supported us has been really heartbreaking for me. Recently the asnwers Why he doesn´t talk? from the other children to me have been more and more insistent but only in order of the concern. I found the most sympathetic and supporting group of teachers/parents/children you can imagine, trying to integrate John every time they can, caring him so he doesn´t eat cakes or candies and understanding his stimming and different reactions (stimming, jumping, auditive hyperreaction, screams sometimes). John is making progress day after day slowly but these children have been teachers and therapists in play for him.
Thank you for sharing so touching and personal history with us.
MAría Luján

12/21/05, 3:47 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

Wade, what a great story about your son's Christmas program and his class.

With respect to the challange of getting appropriate services, you wrote:

Much of the problem appears to be that the special education personnel seem unprepared to deal with the level of autism -- both quantitative and qualitative -- we now see in our schools.

I was curious about whether the parents of all the autistic kids in your son's school work together as a group on this. That might be helpful.

12/21/05, 10:38 AM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

Am still relishing the image of your young man taking his extra moment at the mike.

Regarding "partnership" between parents and the school district, despite a certain amount of antagonism, we have been able to get to this point with our current case manager who is a regular reading of Autismland. She and the teachers work in the trenches and see what is needed; the hardest part we have encountered is communicating that message up the lines of command to those who hold the purse strings (and who seem most liable to kindergartener-like behavior).

12/21/05, 10:48 AM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Maria,

I don't often relate personal anecdotes featuring my son, but I thought this one was appropriate. By now, the class is very used to my wife supplying special snacks, and we have been lucky enough to find treats they can all share. That seems to help them understand our son is not too different, and it obviously makes our son feel less alone.

The kids seem to understand that they have to make the effort to include him. The natural empathy of a neurotypical five-year old is quite inspiring, but it makes me a little sad to see that trait in others when my son can't quite grasp it ... yet.

Anne,

Nice to hear from you again. Our principal has been great about trying to foster communication among the parents. Unfortunately, most of the other ASD parents don't want to shake things up. For the most part, they seem overwhelmed by the whole thing (a feeling we all have at times). I suspect that the principal hopes for us to become a kind of template for getting needed services to the kids.

Kristina,

Think about those endless meetings you go to for your child. Some attendees hear what you say and try to figure out a solution for the individual. Others show by their body language and defensive attitude that they wish you would shut up and let them rely on the same one-size-fits-none solutions they have always used. Not surprisingly, the ones who are the closest to the situation are invariably the ones who understand the individual needs.

12/21/05, 11:27 AM  
Blogger Derek's Mommy said...

That brought tears to my eyes. Its so good to read about mainstreamed children and the great support from other parents. Keep up the good work!

Stacy

12/21/05, 12:40 PM  
Anonymous Shawn said...

Wade, thanks for sharing the story. It sounds like you've seen the true Christmas spirit already this year.

Merry Christmas!

12/21/05, 10:10 PM  
Blogger Kev said...

Great post Wade. Just goes to show the experiences are truly international.

12/22/05, 6:58 AM  
Blogger Eileen said...

You and your wife must have been so proud of your little guy for getting up and saying all his lines the way he did. That is so great! So true that we can learn the most important lessons from children.

12/22/05, 10:58 PM  
Blogger SquareGirl said...

wade,
i have been a teacher and inclusion specialist for children with autism for over twelve years and have always said that it was the children who were going to teach us adults compassion and nondiscrimination...your son is a gift to those children and those children are a gift to their parents. Thank you for your blog...I love it.

12/27/05, 6:09 PM  

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