Recently many parents have been trying to decide what kind of classroom program in which to place their autistic children. There are so many configurations out there in the world today that sometimes it is hard to know and understand which one is exactly best for your child. Do you put them in a self-contained special education classroom, a self-contained with slight mainstreaming, or a regular nursery with support? These of course are just a few of the types of classrooms that our children can find themselves in. I do not know what will work for your child, but I know what worked for mine.
I am going to tell you the story of collegeman’s early education years once we moved to the town where we live now, the one that was willing to help him. HSB’s education was a lot more settled than collegeman’s. The truth is that by the time HSB entered the school system our district had already figured most of the issues pertaining to the placement of autistic students, what with all their experimenting on collegeman. But that is fine, you see. It worked out well for HSB. Apart from a few morons as teachers, something we as parents face at times, whether your child is a typical student or one with special needs, HSB did thrive and grow in the collaborative mainstreaming environment. The truth of the matter, however, is that when collegeman entered the system here, they still sent their truly needy students to out of district programs. Honestly it was the best thing that ever happened to my son.
When we first moved to our district they did try to place collegeman in a regular education classroom. Now even though we entered the district with the diagnosis of PDD-NOS I think legally they were obligated to see if he could function in the mainstream (FAPE). Luckily they had placed him in the hands of two very wonderful kindergarten teachers who didn’t resent his existence. They used to regale me with stories about what interesting thing he said or did that day. (The TA that was in the classroom actually went on to work at the town hall and every time I see her she asks after collegeman, even after 15 years.). The main teacher was also HSB’s kindergarten teacher and was wonderful to him. Never as disabled as collegeman, he still needed a tremendous amount of support which was granted over time by the CSE. Truthfully they should have granted it to HSB as soon as he entered kindergarten, but the school district does what it does and sometimes you do have to be patient, as long as you know that it will work out in the end.
Meanwhile, collegeman as a 5-year-old could not truly function in a mainstream environment even with some support. It was decided to place him out of district in a self-contained classroom. The program was just what collegeman needed at the time. He thrived tremendously.
The classroom had only eight students and two teachers, as opposed to a mainstream class, which could have upwards of 25, even though in my district they keep it to 20. Each child had his own desk, which was put, in little cubicles. The walls were to keep the children from being distracted while they did their work. It helped them focus on what was in front of them. In accordance with their IEPs each child was even given work on the level of understanding and academics that suited them. Collegeman being able to read and write and do math was given a different amount and type of work than the child next to him that could not. Collegeman was also one of the few children in the classroom that was verbal.
The teacher, a wonderful woman, who had been at this for most of her adult life, was a pleasant and caring woman who took not only each child under her wing, but was there for the parent as well. She was not afraid to spend time explaining to you what they were doing and how your child was reacting to the classroom situation. She gave pointers for home and made suggestions about your child’s needs.
One of the things that they used to do is have circle time just like any other kindergarten. Now they didn’t use a regular book, but the stories were cartooned with a few words on each block page so the children could see what they were learning. Everything in the class was geared toward making the children understand the world around them and to be able to process the sensory input around them. There was no sensory gym that they have to day in some schools, and no there was not speech every day. But they had a playground and gym and art and music like everyone else, however, geared toward what they could do and not do. Once a week the speech therapist did come in and the OT came for those children who required it. Not everyone got OT. Collegeman never did. The reality is that it was the teacher and her assistants that worked with the children on an almost one-to-one basis. No one else. Now of course there was the gentleman who ran the program, a psychologist who had worked with autistic children for a very long time. His office was down the hall if they needed anything. As I have said time and time again, it is the teacher that makes the difference. No matter what kind of classroom your child is assigned or who your child happens to be. Oh and yes, the classroom was located in a regular elementary school. So the boys in the self-contained class were surrounded by their neurotypical peers coming and going. Self-contained does not mean marginalized from the world.
Another thing that the school did was to take to the boys out into the community once a week. They would put all eight boys onto a little yellow schoolbus and take them to out local supermarket. I always knew when they were going and I tried to avoid it in the beginning. I didn’t want collegeman to see me and want to come home. After a few months of being with the school, I did purposely go to the market to watch what they did. It was wonderful. The boys stayed inline. They had a checklist of foodstuffs that they wanted to buy for their snack that day and everyone cooperated and helped out. Collegeman did see me, said "hi" and then went right back to school with no problem. He was happy in school and felt comfortable in his classroom. No meltdowns, no tears, for him it was a learning environment full of calm and other boys just like himself.
The teacher told me that collegeman added a special moment to the classroom, which seemed to get the other children interested in what was happening a little outside themselves. The class would not go to the cafeteria for lunch, as it really was just too noisy for most of them. Instead, they would have lunch all together at their big round table in the room. Those that did have to buy lunch though were taken to the cafeteria by the aide and helped through the process. Collegeman would then turn to those children and actually ask them how their lunch was. He tried to engage the other boys in conversation during meals. The teacher picked up on that and helped plod the conversations along. Now here comes the amazing part…one of the boys that bought his lunch everyday came back with packets of ketchup for collegeman one day. He knew that my son loved ketchup on his sandwich so he brought him some back from the cafeteria. The teacher couldn’t get over it, that these children were able to do that and to reach out that way. (Remember 15 years ago was not today in understanding what autistics really were capable of thinking and doing). She told me that collegeman brought a new element into their classroom and it was wonderful.
Collegeman stayed in that classroom for one year, and then was brought in district to a self-contained classroom, with partial mainstreaming and finally into the mainstream with support. There were many configurations of the collaborative class that were developed over the years before the district actually finally settled on one for good, and yes as I said earlier collegeman was the guinea pig as he has always been throughout his life. But it worked for him. Truth is my baby is very strong willed. Stronger I think than anyone really gives him credit. He is a determined young man with hopes and dreams and thoughts for himself and his future. He always was a determined person. That stiff necked and stubborn nature has aided him tremendously throughout the years.
But that first self-contained classroom had a lot to do with setting him on the right path. Helping calm his mind and focus his world. I truly don’t know how much harder the road would have been for him without that little step back to the beginning. Sometimes we don’t see that a person does need to regroup and to review their world, before they march ahead. I know that as parents we always strive to get ahead for our children, but sometimes, just sometimes, what we think is a step back is really not. Its not a step back if it enables your child to make leaps forward at a later date. I also know that we fear that once the school district puts our children in a self-contained class that that is where they are going to stay. I can’t speak for everyone but that is not where mine stayed. I don’t think it has to be where yours stays either. But at that moment that they enter their self-contained classroom, at that time in space, try not to worry beyond that moment. Only think of what they can get out of the class that they are in. Will it provide them the ability to organize their mind, calm their sensory input receptors and enable them to learn the way they need to learn. Will it provide them the skills necessary to further their ambitions one day? That is all you need to think about as you drop you baby off for school on any given day, of any given month, of any given year.
Until next time,