Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
My son is now 13 and in 7th grade. After years of trial and error, tears, frustration, and anger, we have finally found the best education style... for him. As with all children, on or off the autism spectrum, he is an individual, with specialized needs. What works best for him does not work best for another child. What works best for our family may not work for others. There are many pros and cons to the life we have chosen in order to make our son the most successful he can be.
First came private preschool. Expensive private preschool. At the time, we did not exactly know what we were dealing with as far as labels and diagnoses go. We knew he was different. We knew he needed a definite structure and routine and that he was an extremely high-energy, needy, intelligent toddler. We chose a place that had different teachers for different subjects and engaged him in art, history, writing, math, foreign language, physical education, and social etiquette. It seemed to be a great fit for him, and he was happy and successful for the two years he attended.
-Pros: Loving staff who provided him with the learning style that fit him well as a toddler, small class sizes.
-Cons: Extremely expensive. Staff was loving but (especially considering we really did not understand Autism Spectrum Disorders [ASD] and Asperger's Syndrome ourselves) lacked training and experience with special needs children.
Our next experience was public kindergarten. 100% disaster. From the very beginning of school, our son was overwhelmed with being in one classroom all day long, with a large group of kids, within a large and crowded building, overwhelmed in every sense when it came to social and sensory needs and deficits.
-Pros: Well... a definitive diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome finally came (not through the very-unhelpful school, but through the outstanding developmental-pediatrician he had been seeing for several years).
-Cons: Every. Single. Moment.
Montessori school. This was a GREAT fit. Unfortunately it only lasted a year, because we moved from a place where Montessori education was an option through the public schools to a place where it was only offered as an expensive, private option we could no longer afford.
-Pros: Time to focus and gear his learning to his interests and talents, smaller class size, more individual focus from teachers, no pressure to 'sit and conform' in a regular classroom.
-Cons: While the teachers were kind and accepting of his differences, they were not truly trained to work with a child who had difficulty transitioning away from the activity he wanted to work on for hours and hours. For a first grader, it was a mild issue. As he got older, however, it would have become a big problem. Cost was a huge issue.
Public School. Sigh. This was an up-and-down roller coaster. Our son attended public school from 2nd-4th grade. During two of those years, he had wonderful teachers. They were very accepting and encouraging of his learning differences and needs. Any problems that arose were handled with love and a genuine desire to figure out what would work best to help him be successful, although those attempts were frequently blocked by a system that was slow and inadequate in addressing real solutions. Another year was terrible. The teacher he was placed with clearly had limited understanding of children with special needs. She could not connect with him, and she really never made much of an effort to try. While he generally did well in the classroom during those years, he had many issues outside of the classroom, particularly with social skills, the overwhelming sensory issues, and bullies who made life difficult for him. The principal and much of the staff at the school were very loving and as accommodating as they could be, but the special education system and those responsible for ensuring his 504 plan and IEP were followed failed him miserably.
-Pros: Sometimes we got lucky, and he had really wonderful, caring teachers. The principal at the time was 'on his side' and let him know she was a trusted ally when he had difficulty with other students or teachers or when he was overwhelmed and full of anxiety.
-Cons: The anxiety, the fear, the lack of social awareness, and the sensory overload spilled over to our home life. With little to no outlet during school hours, he spent the day holding everything in, only to explode each and every single day after school. There was no real attempt to assist him during school, only to 'manage' any behavioral situation that came up (and there were a lot). Because he was academically on track and didn't (and I quote) "cause any problems in the classroom," the powers-that-be determined over and over that no assistance was warranted.
By the end of his 4th grade year, we knew another change needed to happen. But what could we do? Public school was not working. Private school was not an option. Could we manage/would he accept the idea of homeschooling? In my next article, I will discuss the next phase of my son's education and how we finally found the right fit for him.