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The Richardson School

  • Posted on January 22, 2014 at 10:00 AM

On Monday, I took a tour of the new school for students with special needs that opened in my local area this year. I was greeted by the man who runs the school and taken into a meeting with the supervisor who works with this school and its sister school. We had an intense talk about Alex and Ben, what I was looking for, and how this school might meet their needs. Then, we took a look around.

The school was significantly smaller and quieter than I expected. There are only eight students and they only lease enough space to meet their current needs. They are housed in a full size school, but only use a portion of it. They will lease additional space as they need it, as their student population grows. The quietness was even more unexpected. Some of the students weren’t in school, because some districts honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a day off from school while others don’t, but even so the school was exceptionally quiet. While peeking in the classrooms, I saw that the kids were on task. They were attending, focused on their work.

As I toured the school, one of the most promising things I saw was the art room. If my boys attend this school, they will have art class twice a week, and could use additional art time as break time. The art teacher is actually an art therapist as well. Considering my boys’ inclination for art and their lack of opportunities to develop those interests in their current environment, this was an especially welcome sign.

Another plus was the emphasis on actual education. This school is committed to the Common Core State Standards, which is something all schools are supposed to target, but seems lacking in their current environments. So, it’s possible that Alex and Ben would be able to catch up to where they’re supposed to be if they attended this school. That would become clearer after the school staff assessed the boys. Though, one thing I really liked was their flexibility. They said that if they assessed a child and found, after a month at the school, that the child had a lot more potential than they thought, they could adjust easily to meet the child’s needs.

I was looking at this school to see if it might be a better environment for my children. After visiting this school, I think it may be just what they need. I have IEPs coming up for both of them. Wanting doesn’t make it happen, though, so we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

Embracing the Challenge

  • Posted on January 20, 2014 at 10:00 AM

A new school in my area is dedicated to providing children with special needs with a positive environment, as well as the educational and support services they need. It seems odd that I’m actually considering this, because, years ago, I was committed to ensuring all of my children had the benefits of an inclusive educational environment. Unfortunately, in this school district, that goal was unattainable.

Alex and Ben have both been placed in segregated school environments since they entered elementary school, where they have minimal interactions with regular education peers. They have primarily attended school in what is called a “CD” or cognitively disabled classroom—a classroom positioned “off to the side” of the regular classrooms that is designed specifically for children with more severe special needs. More recently, Ben has been pulled out of even this environment and placed in an even more isolated classroom due to his behaviors.

According to the principle of “least restrictive environment,” the ideal situation for both boys is an environment that provides them with the educational and support services they need in an environment that places the “least restrictions” on them. Now that a new environment is available, I’m beginning to suspect that the least restrictive environment will be a school committed to their needs, instead of a room segregated from their peers.

Today I will visit this new school and see the environment for myself. If I like what I see, I’m going to take a serious look at what is being provided for my children versus what could be provided for them. If the new environment is indeed a better environment for their education, then that will become a new goal. The idea isn’t, however, to have them “placed” somewhere specific, but to have their needs met in a way in a better, more successful way. Of course, I’m already meeting with resistance to the idea, but I’m up to the challenge!

The Full-Time Conundrum

  • Posted on August 14, 2013 at 10:00 AM

In the world of employment, an increase in full-time employment opportunities is a very good thing. After all, full-time employment means that people can actually support a family by working for their keep, assuming their hourly wage is livable. It’s a sign of an improving economy.

When you are the mother of three children with special needs and a freelancer who is also looking to start a graduate degree program, full-time employment can be rather intimidating. I’ve mostly been looking for part-time work, in order to better balance the needs of my family with the needs of my bank account. Yet it seems that most of the opportunities available in my area for someone with my skill set, especially those willing to pay anything close to what I’m worth, are full-time positions.

I want the work and I want the security of an employed position. I’d dearly enjoy the full-time paycheck.

The question is this: Will I be able to enjoy the flexibility I need if I work full-time? If not, will I be able to provide my husband with the support and assistance he needs to step into some of the roles I’ve assumed for so many years?

The complication, of course, is that my husband doesn’t drive. A further complication is that school is starting in the coming weeks and our schools aren’t exactly accommodating in their scheduling, at least not so that it’s feasible for a working parent to register and ready-set-go three children at three different schools after commuting from a job that’s roughly 45 minutes away.

Perhaps all this worrying is premature. My first interview was on Tuesday. This position is through a staffing agency, so my next interview will be with the actual employer. School may be started before I’m even offered the position, if I’m offered the position, and then there would only be the occasional doctor’s appointment or IEP meeting to contend with—for three boys.

The best thing I can do is be honest and upfront and let them decide for themselves whether they can be accommodating. I know I can do the work and I know, if given the opportunity, I can make up for any downtime I may need. The question, as always, is will they let me?

Parent Tip: Immerse Yourself in Autism

  • Posted on July 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Cultural immersion is the idea that idea that you learn about another culture more quickly and more thoroughly if you immerse yourself in that culture. Student who study abroad through an immersion program will travel to another country and live in that country—speaking the language, learning the culture, adapting to the country’s way of life—to improve their understanding of that country and that language, but also to broaden their understanding of global affairs. Cultural immersion programs are touted as a great source of learning.

Compare that to typical American tourism. As Americans, we go into another country, expecting them to speak English we can understand. We visit the sights, but see them only from our own perspectives. We wear our American clothes, carrying around our American baggage, and cop our American attitudes. We often come off as rude, insensitive, and ignorant.

An orientation meeting happens when you start a new job with a new company. If you are one of many new hires, there’s an actual orientation meeting. If you are a single hire, this often comes in the form of a personal tour and a stop at human resources. Either way, your new employer orients you to the culture of the organization you’ve just joined. Some of that orientation will be more about what the organization intends to be, rather than what it is, but even there you’re learning about the organization’s culture.

Compare this to times where you may have started a new job and been plopped down to work without much of an introduction. Disorienting, wasn’t it?

On the surface of things, parenting a child with autism is like being forced into an immersion program. For most people, this may be their first introduction to the disability community. They have to navigate the worlds of special education and special needs medical care with no training and no orientation. They have to figure it out for themselves or find people who can help. All the while, you also have to learn about your child’s disability and ways to help your child.

That sounds a lot like immersion, and I suspect we’ve all been there to one degree or another. After all, we’re being forced—against our will—into the world of disabilities, with all the systems and trappings that go with that.

A lot of parents seem to stop with that level of immersion. They stay in the adult world where all their energies and resources revolve around dealing with their child’s autism—dealing with their child.

It’s like American tourism or the disorienting non-orientation. It’s overwhelming, it’s intense, but it doesn’t help you to understand your child.

In order to immerse yourself in autism, you have to make a shift in your mind. Do you really want to deal with your child? Or do you want to understand your child? If you really want to understand your child, you have to immerse yourself in your child’s world—not the world of disabilities—and connect with your child as a fellow human being. The problem, of course, is that people with autism seem—and truly can be—disconnected from their fellow human beings.

It’s more than just a different culture; it’s a different way of experiencing the world and the people within the world.

It’s true that you still have to immerse yourself in the world of disabilities, because those are the systems our society creates to deal with people with disabilities. But your child is more than just a problem to be dealt with. He or she is a human being you love and care about and want to have a relationship with. In order to do that, you need to connect with him or her. Don’t be an American tourist, expecting your child to bridge the neurological gap. After all, if your child could do that, then he or she wouldn’t be diagnosed with a neurological disability. Immerse yourself in your child’s world. Speak your child’s language, experience your child’s world, experience your child’s way of being. Let that experience broaden your understanding and bridge the gap between yourself and your child.

Autism doesn’t have to be your enemy. Your child certainly should not be your enemy. It’s within your power to attain understanding. Take a step into your child’s world and experience it for yourself.

Reasoning Your Expectations

  • Posted on May 8, 2013 at 10:00 AM

The idea of reasonable expectations encapsulates that idea that there are standards that should be met. This idea translates in a great many ways.

As a parent and an advocate, it means:

  • I have a reasonable expectation for my children’s special needs to be met while they are in school.
  • I have a reasonable expectation for my children’s educational needs to be while they are in school.
  • I have a reasonable expectation that both needs are equally important and one should not have to be compromised to meet the other.

For the school staff, it means:

  • They have a reasonable expectation not to be endangered by the students they serve.
  • They have a reasonable expectation that the supports and resources they need to accommodate their students will be provided for their use.
  • They have a reasonable expectation of cooperation from fellow staff members, parents, and even students.

For the child with special needs, it means:

  • They have a reasonable expectation to be engaged while at school.
  • They have a reasonable expectation of sufficient supports and accommodations to be in place so they can take advantage of their educational opportunities.
  • They have a reasonable expectation of sufficient supports and accommodations to be able to meet the demands placed on them in the school environment.

Finding a way to communicate and make sense of the specific requirements that would satisfy these expectations, and to devise a way to provide them, is a big responsibility for everyone involved. It’s not an easy process. However, it seems too often the process is short-changed in pursuit of what is easy or expedient, instead of what is actually required.

Pick-Ups & Employment

  • Posted on May 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM

It’s rare that an entire week goes by without us receiving at least one call from the schools to pick up at least one of our children.

This is frustrating and disruptive on so many levels, but I want to seriously consider one of those levels right now. It makes the prospect of full-time, traditional-style employment unlikely for me.

Here’s why:

  1. Mark doesn’t drive.
  2. Our only back-up person is my mother, who is traditionally employed.
  3. School and traditional work-days tend to coincide.
  4. Few, if any, employers are flexible enough for staff to take time off at unexpected times at least once a week.

The end-result is that if I were to try to hold down a traditional job while things being the way they are, I would get fired.

The problem with this scenario is that, to make effective use of my newly acquired graduate degree, I’m considering traditional employment. I’ve even applied to the few positions I’ve found that seem to require my qualifications.

I can’t be constantly on-call for the school and support my family. It seems to me like this is an unreasonable expectation.

What do you think?

Special Education Special: Placement

  • Posted on April 3, 2013 at 10:00 AM

For the last few months we’ve been struggling with Ben’s new school to reestablish the environment we expected Ben to receive when he was moved from his old elementary school to this new school. Finally, finally, finally we achieve that goal, and Ben’s behaviors and his academic progress are already seeing dramatic improvements.

So, why then, at his latest IEP, did the principal inform me that the environment Ben needed would not be available next year due to space requirements?

For those who may not be familiar with special education law, placement—including the environment in which services are received—is a decision that is supposed to be made based on the child’s needs, not on the basis of “administrative convenience.” This obviously includes Ben’s classroom environment, which is obviously a big, big issue considering Ben has lost several months of academic progress due to inappropriate placement.

So, after having proven, two years running, that environment is a big factor in Ben’s needs and having countless meetings to “figure this out” again, why would they change his placement for next year?

It looks like this is going to become an even bigger battle than we’ve already been through. So, what’s your child(ren)’s placement like? Does your child(ren)’s placement meet the child’s individual needs or the convenience of the school district? What have you done about it?

Breaking Out of Our Microcosm

  • Posted on March 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

One of the greatest difficulties we face in raising a family with multiple special needs is that those needs and the family needs those needs create can become so consuming that our family becomes something of a microcosm unto itself. Outside of this microcosm is a community greater than ourselves, including family, friends, acquaintances, and local/state/national/international community. All too often it seems this greater community provides inputs for the microcosm while getting little in return.

My family has lately experienced many, many relatively minor, non-life-threatening hardships. Though they are relatively small in nature, there have been so many it has consumed much of our attention, energy, and resources. Outside of this, we’ve had friends and family members who are experiencing much bigger hardships. Outside of this, our community has been wrenched by numerous tragedies. In some ways, unless those hardships and tragedies are thrust right in front of me, it seems all this happens at the periphery.

One person in particular comes to mind. A member of our family has been enduring treatments for cancer. There’s the pain of the cancer, the pain of the treatments, the many inconveniences, hardships, and emotions that are involved. When he is with us, as there have been times when he was, we show our love, our concern, and our support.

But then the avalanche of needs comes crashing down and it’s all I can do to remember and be mindful of what I’m supposed to do at the moment. Partly, that’s the fog clouding my mind. Partly, that’s the seemingly unending barrage of needs that must be met. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, however much it needed to be so at the time, I look back with regret that we were not a greater source of support and love as he struggled through this treatment process. Now, that treatment process has ended.

We were able to be there, showing our love, our concern, and our support. We were able to take a break from our own concerns and the overwhelming needs of our family. We were able to be there and to be there for him, not as ourselves so much as a part of the greater world beyond our microcosm. It was good to be there!

Now, we must simply hope and pray that the treatment was a success and try not to get too caught up in our microcosm in the process.

Paying the Cost

  • Posted on September 10, 2012 at 8:00 AM

This summer has taken a toll on me and my family. Summers are usually a time of more pronounced need—because the boys are at home more often if for no other reason. But this summer has been full of the unexpected. I’ve been scrambling to keep up, getting further behind in the process.

Regular family obligations. An unexpected diagnosis. Regular business obligations. Coursework. A new book contract. A pronounced need to further develop non-writing skills that support my writing. It’s all taken its toll. Simply put, I’m tired.

It manifested itself as an infection that spread from a tooth to my face. After weeks of pushing myself, my body finally pushed back. So, for over a week now, I’ve been forced to rest so that my body can heal. Slowly, the swelling has gone down and the pain has gone away. I’m almost recovered—though I’ll need to see a dentist to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s times like these that I like of all my well-meaning friends, who are also parents of children with special needs, who have talked about the importance of self-care. It’s not that I don’t respect their wisdom—I certainly do!—but I haven’t found a way to put it into practice, at least not consistently. When everything is going so fast and there are always more things to do than can reasonably get done, how do you pull back and set limits? I honestly don’t know. But at times like these it becomes increasingly clear that I need to figure it out!

That seems to be the next thing for me to learn.

Alex and His New Glasses

  • Posted on July 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

So, we got Alex’s new glasses—glasses without hinges but with an elastic band (which he doesn’t really care fore). We’re starting off a little better with these, but he still takes them off for longer stretches than he actually wears them. The band doesn’t deter him from putting them back on with prompts, though, so I’m hopeful that these glasses will stand up to Alex’s peculiar wear and will be something he actually, eventually wears most of the time.

As for me, I’m desperately struggling to catch up with work while still worrying about Willy’s seizure activity…so this is going to be a short post, but I’m hoping next week will start out with some really exciting news.