Friday, October 21, 2011

Bringing Awareness, Understanding and Acceptance Into Your Child's School

     No matter what learning disability a child may have, a parent's main concern is for their child to be accepted by their peers. Our eight year old son, Nathan, has Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Academically, he is where he should be but, it is the challenge of adapting socially that Nathan struggles with daily. He encounters a child every once in a while that has learned to "push his buttons". No matter how much Nathan tries to block out the actions of the other child and things that are said towards him, he eventually loses control of the small world around him.
     This is why I became more involved in our elementary school after Nathan made it through half day kindergarten. His kindergarten teacher had willingly accompanied his Intervention Team Specialist and myself to a three part training in behavior of autism during that year. If it hadn't been for those two wonderful women, I wouldn't have been able to attend due to the requirement of having two educators as part of the team with a parent. It gave me unbelievable encouragement to know that my son had such understanding teachers guiding him at school. We collaborated daily on his behavior, his strengths and weaknesses in order to help him cope with his surroundings.
     During Nathan's kindergarten year the students were joined by their fourth grade Reading Buddies during a certain time each week. Out of appreciation for these understanding students that were reading with my son, I offered to read to their class once a week. I explained to their teacher about a book I had found written from the perspective of a twelve year old girl whose eight year old brother had autism. I was so ecstatic when he agreed to let me read about a disorder none of his students had probably even heard about! I knew it would help them understand him a little better and would hopefully instill awareness and tolerance for them to draw from as they met with him each week. The fourth grade class seemed to get a kick out of it when I would either accidentally, or purposely, use Nathan's name instead of the character, David, when reading the story to them. The book was written on a fourth grade level so there were very few words or phrases I had to change while reading it aloud to them. I really looked forward to reading to them each week because I have always wanted to write childrens' books myself.
     When Nathan started first grade, Nathan's kindergarten teacher had already spoken to his new teacher about the progress he had made the previous year and what we were still working with him on. She was very open to the idea of me coming into class once a week to read to Nathan's classmates. Even though I had to substitute more appropriate words in some places when I read aloud to the first graders, I was more comfortable reading to them than the older students. Every once in a while, I purposely used Nathan's name instead of David's to see if they were still listening. To reward Nathan's classmates for letting me come read to them, I brought them a small snack towards the end of my reading time. I went on field trips, helped with class parties and continued to make myself available to Nathan's teacher whenever Nathan was up against a challenge in his daily routine. The rest of the year I became a parent that most of the student's recognized as "Nathan's Mom" when they saw me in the halls, sometimes in my work uniform.
     Before, Nathan started second grade I had decided that I would become a substitute teacher for our public school system and I could choose to work mostly at our elementary school. Nathan did so much better when he knew I was around the school, or could "pop in" at any given time. I took a few assignments at the middle school, just around the corner, hoping that the elementary school would have something for me in the near future. After the elementary teachers had a chance to get to know me better, many of them were stopping me in the halls, or calling me, to ask me if I was able to substitute for them. Both of my boys but, especially Nathan seemed more secure, or at ease, when I was on the elementary school campus during the day. Unfortunately, I wasn't always able to wait for a substitute assignment at the elementary school. Nathan struggled through the rest of the school year but, I decided that certain things would need to change in order for Nathan to concentrate on his education. He shouldn't have to worry about being bullied, because he's different.
     The last day of school, the students are recognized at a school assembly for excelling in reading, their academic achievements and attendance. Before the assembly, the State PTA President joined our school Principal in a special PTA school meeting to promote the importance parents of getting involved in their child's school. I hadn't been feeling well and, after dropping the boys off at school, I had only stayed to see each of my boys recognized in their separate assemblies. Afterwards, I just wanted to go home, make myself a cup of tea, take my medicine and sleep until I had to pick up the boys from their last day of school. I really wanted to get more involved in the elementary school but, I decided that I would sign up when the new school year started in the fall. The school Principal had spotted me and was determined to make a change of her own by nominating me as the new PTA Treasurer for our elementary school. Before I knew what had happened, I had been elected as part of a new PTA counsel for the next two years! I stood before a crowded room of parents, grandparents and teachers wearing sweatpants, a hoodie over my t-shirt, no make up and my hair pulled up into a ponytail. I spoke briefly to them in how I looked forward to working with the parents, teachers and most importantly, the students during the next school year. I have learned that God works in mysterious ways and to not question but, to be open to changes. Besides, this could be an opportunity to bring autism awareness, understanding and acceptance to our elementary school making it possible for children like Nathan to co-exist without being bullied.
     We have been very impressed with Nathan's third grade teacher and how she has been working with him. She and his reading teacher have been communicating with his Intervention Team Specialist to provide Nathan with the best possible education and daily routine. I have read to his class three times after giving them a chance to ask me questions about autism and how it affects Nathan. It has given me what some might call "the once in a lifetime" chance to help my son's classmates understand and accept other students for who they are. I had noticed in Nathan's first grade class, once his classmates understand more about him, and how each of them was special in their own way, the students were more supportive and protective of him at school. That's what I want for Nathan and every student that gets to know be understood, have awareness of each other and be accepted regardless of how different they might seem from anyone else. I look forward to every chance I have to read, help or do anything with the students at our elementary school. And I make sure the students know that I am not perfect and can make mistakes but, my goal is to learn something new, use my manners and help others when I can. It is important for students to understand they are individually special and can make a positive impact in each others lives.
     For anyone that might be interested, the title of the book I have been referring to is Rules by Cynthia Lord. It can be found in almost any public school library. Or you can buy a copy for yourself at a local bookstore or online.


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