The world of preschool. Letters and sounds. Colors, shapes and objects. Identifying numbers 1 – 10. Developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills by introducing drawing & coloring. Pencils, crayons, paintbrushes, scissors & glue – tools that make preschool official. Imagination is in full gear during arts & crafts, and science is even a hit as it broadens the curiosity with rocks & animals. Musical instruments…an obvious accessory to the room used to spark creativity & add a lot of noise. Learning how to share & work together is implemented. Taking turns. Following simple directions. Teaching communication…desperately trying to influence expressing feelings through words rather than tears. And educating through play…something that has proven to be successful. The sound of laughter, songs & chatter fill the air of an establishment where parents drop their little love ones off with such anticipation of the afternoon, awaiting for joyful responses to “How was your day?”
This was certainly not the case in our world of preschool. Same setting. Different scenario. Autism had been added to the mix of letters, colors, shapes & numbers. First of all, Callie wasn’t potty trained and not even close. His sensory problems were off the chart. He didn’t respond to his name nor anything else for that matter. “He’s withdrawn” is what I was often told. He stayed in one corner of the room where he rocked back & forth, flapped his arms & stared into space. Circle time was out of the question. Making friends, participating in games, sharing & following directions seemingly was of no interest to him. At first, meltdowns were ongoing because neither party understood each other, but then the “caring” switch was turned off. His teachers felt helpless and that’s how they saw my son as well. While the rest of the class were engaged in the daily activities, Callie was allowed to remain in his favorite corner of content….undisturbed. All of this was before our greet, meet & stay with autism. After several meetings with the director of the preschool and witnessing more of the same at home, we took Callie to a Developmental Pediatrician where he was diagnosed with autism. Although baffled with this turn of events, placed in our hands, I knew life had to change, but all who circled my child had to be enlightened too….and accommodations for him was not an option. This was not an overnight endeavor. I faced guilt in the mornings, walked hand and hand with anxiety throughout the day and was cuddled & rocked by fear to sleepless nights. I felt like the most unprepared Mom given a precious gift by God. There were many days of weeping. Months of being lost. No matter how much I researched, I was more perplexed than I was the day before. It’s interesting…..now, we can google “autism” and tons of information pops up – from causes & risk factors, signs & tests, symptoms & treatments, diets and support groups. Magazines, books, the news (sometimes), talk shows, reality shows are at least mentioning this world wide topic. You say the word “autism” and most people know someone affected or have in some part heard of it. Ten years ago, although not new, it wasn’t news worthy. You didn’t have as many people knowledgeable…..even the pediatricians who gave your child shots, checked for ear infections, prescribed cold medicine and watched your child’s weight & height carefully were clueless of the mere signs. Schools considered your child disruptive, unproductive and slow. Some just locked your child up in programs that had nothing to do with their diagnosis or their potential. Our family made it on a wing and a prayer. I marvel, yet applaud, the parents before me who ran with less and used that as a compass to steer through this foreign road. But I could not stand stagnant no matter how tall & wide the obstacles were. I had to take what little I had and sprint.
Expectations of Callie succeeding in anything had pretty much been erased. The director of the preschool, as well as, the teachers might as well had asked me to early release him for good. They had written him off. At first, I was quite taken back. When I informed them of Callie’s diagnosis, I was hoping to gain some insight on an unknown that I assumed they would be well informed on, especially being a credited private school. Degreed and quick to throw out their years of experience, these individuals were no experts on autism. At a loss would best describe them. They weren’t set up for an environment change that would be conducive to helping children with any kind of special needs. How could they focus on an intervention when the first mention of the word was when I defined it for them? It was apparent that the parent & the student would become the teacher. Every week, Callie saw a speech therapist, ABA therapist & occupational therapist. What I learned from them, in addition to what was working for him at home – all was discussed with the director & Callie’s teachers. No longer could they use the excuse of not being aware or not understanding. I asked them to watch Callie intently….something I know was not done before. He can respond, maybe not with words but with gestures. I explained the importance of communicating with him and not assuming he’s not listening or not comprehending. Again, this was not a walk in the park. Callie was still not potty trained. Changing him was a job all by itself. It took 2…sometimes 3 people to change him. Many days I came up to the school to help tackle the #2 and clean the bathroom. Extra clothes was a necessity……and so was staying stocked at home with washing powders, spray-n-wash & bleach. He didn’t have any friends. Matter of fact the rude & harsh stares from the other students, as well as, their parents (and even some staff members) were sometimes unbearable. Callie didn’t appear to notice but I did. I cried a lot but I woke up each morning drained, overwhelmed….and determined to try again. It took 2 years for them to see my son and not what he had been diagnosed with. They learned to recognize strengths & not box him based on his weaknesses. And they discovered that no words does not equate to no comprehension, no communication or no intelligence.
Graduation was bittersweet. Callie was leaving a comfort a zone and about to enter a galaxy of unfamiliarity in elementary school. However, we were so proud of the steps he had made…but there was one more mountain to climb. Callie’s teachers made the director aware of how hyper he had gotten lately. They were not confident he could walk with the other children in the graduation processional. They wanted one of his teachers to walk with him. I said no. I wanted my son to prove to them that he could do more than they gave him credit for. And so what if the processional falls apart because my son kangaroo jumps the entire time? This was his day too. I saw his trying and that’s all that mattered. I sat with my husband and my other two boys, crying & praying. I then held my breath as the music started. Little beautiful people walked down the aisle in their cap & gown and one of them was my son. Parents were excited about the certificate of achievement. The kids were excited about the cookies & punch afterwards. I was elated & grateful my son walked by himself….no kangaroo jumping….nothing but a straight face & calmness. That was my highlight. He did something yet again they doubted he could do. In their eyesight, the curtains had closed and they had very little faith in his future….but with much love, growth, hard work & hope, he continues to be an extraordinary illustration of “closed curtains can open.”
Thanks for listening,