A Mind of My Own
Posted by Gail | Filed under Autism
Chapter Eight: Advocating At School (Part 5)
I have been accused from time to time to time of having too high expectations. But I don’t think it is so. I customize my expectations based on my children’s strengths and what else is going on in their lives. While Alex was never any good at gym, she was first class in karate, which she took privately, so I knew she wouldn’t be in trouble with a B on her report card. Ditto most of her music curriculum at school because we did music privately and she was a good piano (and then guitar) student, well ahead of the elementary school curriculum.
Malcolm is constantly struggling with language, so I don’t use the report card marks as a gage for him for English. But I do for the other subject areas, and I congratulate him heartily for his B in science or social studies since it means he likely knew everything and communicated what he knew pretty poorly! But I don’t leave it to chance either. I make sure I have the curriculum and that he knows what he must know to my satisfaction. And I push him hard to not “settle” for easy marks. As long as he’s doing his best, I’m happy with his effort.
In dealing with the education environment in which our kids must function, you have to be flexible. You need to know your stuff and be prepared to advocate for your child. If you don’t get what you think your child needs, you have to be prepared to escalate up the line to a higher authority, change schools, or take the job over yourself.
Okay, now, before you go jumping on me about not being able to because you work or because you don’t have the time, or for whatever good reason you have, let me first say, that there’s always something that you can do. When I home-schooled Malcolm I was lucky enough to be working from home. I would get up at 4:00 a.m. to write, stopping at 7:00 to get Alex up, dressed, fed and off to school. Then I’d school Malcolm until noon when we’d have lunch, I’d drop him at school, grab a one hour nap, pick the kids up, play for a while, head home, make dinner and then go back to work, leaving my husband on kid-patrol. It was tough, man. I was tired. But it beat the hell out of watching my kid puke every morning because his life sucked so badly.
I know that without my intervention Malcolm would have been lost at school. He may have become a behaviour problem, biting and hitting in the early grades and withdrawing and fighting later on. Certainly his self-esteem would have suffered. And he would have struggled academically, losing ground every year until he finally gave up. With some effort, a loud voice, and the determination to make him self-sufficient over time, things have turned out very differently. But each day brings a new challenge. And each challenge brings new understanding.
As I learn more and more about my son, I fall deeper and deeper in love with him. What courage he shows each day heading off into the uncertainty he faces. What determination to keep moving forward. And what a sense of himself he must have to stay so balanced most of the time. He sets a high standards, and I am determined to live up to it.
An update: Malcolm is now 16 and in Grade 10 at high school For his Grade 8 year I pulled him out of the elementary school he had been going to because the only teacher option was truly horrible. The man was a bully and dumb as dirt. Alex had him for just 3 months and talked her way into high school (at age 12) to get away from him. I knew Malcolm would never survive him. All my hard work would have been completely undone.
I was prepared to home school him. But a friend of mine pointed out that there was a very small, independent school in the area that might work. So I went to meet with the principal, Linda. This woman had opened her own small school because she was so disdainful of the traditional public school’s ability to deal with kids who weren’t typical.
A warren of rooms, thousands of books, and a hugely strong policy against bullying and I was convinced. About sixty-five children from age 4 through 13 go to this school every year and Linda weaves her magic to not only cover the curriculum but to teach patience, tolerance and the skills required to stand up for yourself. All the children play together at recess; there are no segregated playgrounds. And if little kids want to get into the basketball game with the big kids, they can, with love and support from the bigger kids who are their mentors.
When it was time for Malcolm to go to high school, I insisted on orienting him to the building myself. We spent a day learning the corridors, the various “halls” – like science and tech – and how the library and cafeteria operated. And I arranged for Alex (who was in her last year) to take Malcolm into some of her classes so he could see how the teachers in high school operated. He was there for the mass change-over between classes (enough to cast the fear of god into anyone, never mind a child coming out of a school of 65 kids), and Alex taught him how to walk so kids wouldn’t bump into him: head up, strong strides, give not an inch and the river of kids will part.
At Grade 10 Malcolm had some academic setbacks. The curriculum started to move so fast that with his language comprehension and slow processor he started to fall behind. The math teacher said a lot of the right things but didn’t do a lot to accommodate him. In contrast, his science teacher took him under her wing and he fell in love with physics and chemistry. I was very grateful for all her extra attention and I told her so. Every time I said something nice to her (by email), I copied the principal.
At one point we thought the testing was a problem at school and I was ready to jump all over that. Malcolm was doing well in class and with at-home assignments but his marks went into the 20s for tests. I investigated at home asking lots of questions and assessing what I think had gone wrong. What had gone wrong was Malcolm; he’d checked out. He was living in his head during class time and missing huge pieces of important lessons. I kicked his ass. I told the principal it wasn’t the system, the teachers or the tests, it was Malcolm. I threatened Malcolm with the loss of his phone. “Dude,” I said “if you spent half the time on history as you do playing Angry Birds you’d be getting 100%.”
After his next history test he got in my car and when we pulled into the garage he handed me his cell. “What’s this?” I asked.
“We had a deal,” he said. “I only got 65% on my history test.” The deal we had made was that he had to get better than 70% for me to let him keep his phone.
“You pulled a 65%? Really?” I was a little astonished to tell the truth. “You went from 23% to 65%?” I was actually very impressed. I handed him back his phone. “You keep it up and you can keep the phone,” I said. “Is that a deal?”
“Yes,” he said seriously. Then he added, “I love you mom.”
“I love you too sweetheart,” I said. “Don’t make me sad because I have to take away your phone. I don’t want to. So you do what you’re supposed to do, okay?”
“Yah,” he said.
Malcolm went on to recover in every subject. He started pulling high 70s and mid 80s in tests. I got him a tutor for math to get him back to even before Grade 11. Fingers crossed.