A story in honor of Autism Awareness Month:
I spent three days visiting the Grand Canyon this week with about 40 elementary school kids from Miles Exploratory Learning Center, a K-8 TUSD school on Broadway Boulevard. I've been back for two days, and I'm tired and now sick—my immune system is not used to being exposed to all those kiddy germs at one time.
Despite the aftermath, the experience was so fun learning alongside my son, his friends and classmates.
It was a fun school-trip adventure, but also a test for my son, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism at age 5. He's 8 now, and in the third-grade. Since our move to Tucson almost three years ago he's been through so much in finding the right school district and school. There were a couple of absolute disasters, but that proved to be a test for us—his parents—in how to be better advocates for him. We did everything that had been recommended to us—occupational therapy for sensory issues and behavioral therapy—and all along, we kept expecting teachers and school staff to understand how to work successfully with this willful perfectionist/smart kid.
We discovered it doesn't work that way, and we figured out that the only persons who really understood how to work with our kid were us—his parents. Last year, we asked TUSD to transfer our son to Miles; our gut told us that it would better for him if he went to school closer to our house and would have more success in a K-8 setting. Every week now, my husband and I say to ourselves how lucky we are that TUSD miraculously approved our request.
Then we had an interesting summer—a disastrous beginning in a program made for kids with emotional and physical disabilities. Our only choices at that point were mostly programs for typical kids. and we were honest with our son that these were his only choices, and he had to start making better choices regarding his behavior. He promised us he could do it, because he didn't want to go back to what he described as a "self-contained" camp.
That summer every camp week was successful, with only a few bumps here and there—nothing like we'd experienced in the past. Our gut began to tell us something else: If he's equating bad behaviors with being in a self-contained classroom, and he's having such success in summer camp programs for typical kids, he'd probably succeed in a regular mainstream classroom. His IEP required that he have a one-on-one aide, so there could be extra support in place. We met with the self-contained autism classroom teacher a couple of weeks before school started, and she helped get the ball rolling—and I think to everyone's surprise, our son is kicking butt.
This doesn't mean every week or day is perfect. But I'd like to think he's likely to continue to succeed—to better understand how his behaviors limit his life and social connections. We found out this year that he reads at a seventh-grade level and he qualified for the GATE pull-out program for gifted kids. I can guarantee that teachers he had two years ago would not recognize our third-grader today.
So this test—going on his first school trip to the Grand Canyon—would it be a success? Because he has an aide, the school required that a parent go with him, so I took some vacation time. I worried about how it would go—sleeping away from me on the boys side with a couple of his buddies (another new gift for my son—friends), I worried he'd have a meltdown in the middle of the South Rim hiking path, and I worried that I'd see a negative side to my son's school social life—something I don't get a chance to observe every school day.
Going to the Grand Canyon proved to be a gift for both of us. My son set up his sleeping bag near his buddies and had some difficulty getting to sleep in a huge room with 40 other kids (but so did most of the other kids), but he never came close to any meltdown and loved listening to every detail from the rangers and doing journal activities. But what I saw blew me away—how my son interacts with other kids at his school. It isn't smooth. He's still working on certain social stuff, but for the most part, the kids he likes seem accepting—even the "jock" kid in his classroom kept an eye on him to make sure he had a place to sit during certain activities. And, yes, I went up to his mom when we got back and told her son was a true mench (she looked at me like I was crazy, but I think it's good for a mom to know when your son is a mench).
I also saw some amazing work from our teachers. About six teachers came along, and you can bet my son was not the only one there with special needs. Miles has an amazing program for hearing-impaired kids, and there are a slew of other kids there with emotional and learning disabilities. I was in awe of how they worked together with all of the children, and struck by how hard they work—realizing they work this hard all the time when we are at school. Here they were, however, in a 24/7 adventure. I never saw a teacher lose their cool, and during every minute of the trip, I reflected on how lucky my son finally found a great school, and how lucky his parents were to find this great school, too.
During this month—Autism Awareness Month—remember there are a lot of kids like my son, just trying to find a place they fit in—not a place of tolerance, but acceptance. Your kids go to school with kids like mine, and you need to know they are so much more then their disability, and they have amazing futures. And if you're like me, and your child has found a great learning community, bless those teachers everyday.
And don't forget the Grand Canyon. I hadn't been there since a trip I took in college. How lucky I was to experience that big hole through the eyes of my son—blown away by the view, the immensity and even the little winding strip of water we all drink from called the Colorado River.