I had no idea how hard this was going to be.
No one can prepare you for what it’s going to be like. There will be tears, anger, disappointment and a lot of praying. A lot of praying.
Many can pretend to empathize with your particular situation but no one can tell you what it’s like to have a child with special needs in a high school environment. There can be challenges for social integration which may include teasing or bullying. But I had faith that this would all work out. I know that his Ontario English Catholic teachers play an integral role in overcoming some of these obstacles.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.
When our son was a toddler, we knew something was amiss. The paediatrician suggested it was in my head. I was reading the situation wrong. I had two healthy, happy girls by then and I realized that our son was not playing in the same manner as his sisters. He showed signs of parallel play and not inclusive play. He quickly became obsessed with trains, patterns and alignment. He was craving routine and presenting sensitivity to sounds. All simple, yet distinct, signs that he may be on the Autism Spectrum. After a few traumatic incidents at school and a good two years of dogged determination to find out how we could help, we received the diagnosis: PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified). Autism is a very large spectrum and our son found himself on the very high functioning, gifted mark of the spectrum.
Being on the Autism spectrum means that since grade 3 he has had a very detailed IEP (Individual Education Plan) for school. This legal document has helped him through the years to guide and direct his learning so that he succeeds. With it comes a slew of professionals who help him be the best version of himself in an academic setting. When he was in elementary school there were psychologist, psychometrists, occupational therapists, child and youth workers, social workers, education assistants, resource teachers, classroom teachers, principals and even psychiatrists working with him.
As he grew and entered high school the dynamics of those relationships and the amount of support diminished. We were not prepared for this change in support and personnel, we were expecting the same sort of services. That was not the case at this much larger high school (three times as large as his other high school). What we also did not know was how we would have to continue advocating for the teachers to read and follow the very specific IEP. There are accommodations within this document which permit our son to write exams in a quiet resource center as opposed to a noisy and/or distracting classroom. An IEP also provides him extra time to complete the exam. It is a window into his learning style and also relays challenges that he may face in a social environment. What it did not provided was the ability to tailor or alter methods of evaluation. Finding a middle ground for support, independence and academic success was challenging.
Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves dealing with teenage angst, adolescence and spectrum traits. He is after all a 16 year old boy. There will be moments of self-doubt, laziness and simple confusion. A child on the Autism spectrum has challenges reading social situations. He/she may not understand the flow of the conversation, interpret inferred sarcasm, teasing or visual cues that we take for granted. Not to mention, social niceties of when to enter or exit a conversation as well as how to control outbursts or lack of filters. It can be difficult to navigate. Our son has had problems at times integrating into the natural flow of the classroom. When group discussions or group projects were part of the curriculum, it was brought to our attention that he was having difficulties adjusting.
Today, the lion’s share of the support comes from his parents, his resource assistant and his English Catholic teachers. The bulk of the responsibility for making high school a success falls on all of our shoulders but it is his classroom teachers that have become pivotal in his success.
This is when it is important to review and understand his IEP so a teacher may be able to help. As a group we meet with our son’s teachers at least twice in a semester to discuss strengths, weaknesses and strategies which may be able to help him succeed. Success can take the form of teachers setting the example by showing empathy and compassion when he struggles. When we are able to discuss how to best encourage participation and integration into classroom activities, I know I am in the right nurturing school environment. Our common beliefs for exhibiting compassion, support and understanding are values that we exhibit within a Catholic community and extend into a school setting. It is not exclusive to our community but it is encouraged as Lessons for Life. There are many reasons why I appreciate a Catholic school education but the main reason is that it has reinforced the values that we as a family hold dear: faith, charity, benevolence, social justice and social good.
If you are not used to working with a special needs child, it can be daunting to understand some of the idiosyncrasies specific to each child. Working with the teachers to help our son better integrate into his classroom, finding ways for him to communicate with his peers and understanding how he learns best is what we do as a group. I cannot say enough about the dedication that these teachers have to making this a positive high school experience. They reach out to us via email and phone calls when they realize our son is struggling or falling behind. One teacher offered to tutor him one-on-one because she understood a group environment can be overwhelming. That small gesture of compassion meant the world to us. Working with teachers that care and helps us come up with solutions is the kind of support you would expect from any compassionate teacher but I understand it is not always the case.
Early on we made a conscious choice to send our children to a faith based school and we believe in the strength and dedication that our Ontario English Catholic Teachers bring to the table. Both by living in their faith and adhering to values of compassion, support and understanding that each and every child is unique and loved. We have seen time again how they sacrifice time and volunteer within the school to make those troublesome teenage years a great experience. It is true, now one could have prepared us for the valuable help that his teachers have provided.
Visit http://www.catholicteachers.ca/LessonsForLife for more information.
This post is part of the YummyMummyClub.ca and the Ontario’s Catholic Teachers #CatholicTeachers sponsored program. I received compensation as thank you for my participation. This post reflects my personal opinion about the information provided by the sponsors.