Thursday, March 27, 2014

Peter's School Days

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings
Peter in pre-kindergarten, with the beloved Mrs. Richie
The other day, a friend shared a link to a blog post entitled, "Who Decides Our Children's Worth" written by a mother whose son happened to have autism. It's heartbreaking -- you can hear her frustration. And it brought me back to Peter's public-school years. Peter has Asperger Syndrome.

We had known Peter had challenges from the time he was about three months old. When he was three years old, a speech-language pathologist pointed out a weakness in social skills, but he had no diagnosis at the time he entered pre-kindergarten.

His pre-K teacher, bless her heart, was so kind to him. She acknowledged that he had a hard time with school -- he frequently had complete meltdowns either on the way to school or when I came to pick him up. Out of anxiety, he sucked on his shirt sleeves to the point that they were sodden and made his pants wet as well. (We resolved it by putting him in button-down Oxford-weave shirts, which he didn't like sucking. That's why he looks so dapper in the picture. Suits him, doesn't it?)

It was in pre-K that we noticed that whatever had been said or done at school stayed there, kind of like Las Vegas. He wouldn't tell us stories he'd heard, things he'd learned, or difficulties he'd had. If there was not a piece of paper in his backpack, we would not hear about it. It was an approach that would really complicate things as he got older -- and it has not changed.

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings
Peter in Kindergarten
By kindergarten, Peter had been referred for a psychiatric assessment at the McHugh outpatient program at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. He was only in the regular school just long enough to get his school picture taken. Isn't he adorable?

He spent the rest of that academic year at the McHugh unit, and it was bliss for me. There were no morning meltdowns, Peter seemed well adjusted for the first time.

From there, he was sent to a special needs class.

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings

Overseen by the incomparable team of Mrs. MacDonald, Mrs. Landriault, and Mrs. Oychk, the classroom was a supportive and safe place from which he could integrate into a regular classroom. It went so well that he actually made a friend, Elliott, who is still his best friend.

Eventually, of course, he was "fully integrated" into a regular classroom. For the first few years, it went well. Until grade five.

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings
Despite his smile, this was a horrible year for him.
His grade five teacher just didn't get Peter.

Suddenly, Peter hated school. Just hated it. He and his buddy, both ten years old, had a plan they called BUS: Blow Up School. It was purely cathartic fantasy, but I told Peter that he absolutely could not talk about this around school!

I did everything I could to help make this work. I met with the teacher, I sent e-mails. In return, I got a steady string of e-mails about how my son was being defiant (this teacher's favourite word). I tried to explain that, for Peter, logic was very linear and without it, he would have a hard time complying with directions. A 10-second explanation would solve a world of problems.

I suspect that the teacher wasn't (in my humble opinion) all that bright. Peter came home one day upset that the teacher had insisted that Peter had given a wrong answer in an alphabetization test. In typical hyperbolic fashion, Peter said, "He thinks that L comes before K!"

I knew it would happen, that one day Peter would have a teacher, professor, supervisor or other leader who was not as intelligent as he was. I hadn't expected it to happen in elementary school.

I debated asking to have Peter moved to a different class. Steve and I discussed the pros and cons. In the end, for better or worse, we decided that Peter would learn from this experience. He was not being harassed or abused, he was not in danger. We would help him through it.

Two years later, it happened again.

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings
We are not happy. I think the photographer had taken Peter's pencil away.
In middle school, the universe of angst and hormonal torment, Peter had one teacher who basically refused to make any accommodations for him, despite his having an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). She, too, seemed to think he was insolent. (She also insisted that she would not respond to e-mail or phone calls between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., or on weekends. While I understand -- do I ever! -- the need for work-life balance, this made it extremely difficult to resolve issues in a timely manner, especially as, back in those days, I didn't have access to my personal e-mail until I got home.)

This was the period when most students get each other's phone numbers and e-mail addresses and keep in touch outside of school hours. It's a tremendous help for homework, studying, and missed classes. Peter never had that. The only person he could contact was the teacher -- even after I asked the special education advisor to get Peter a couple of names and phone numbers.

It was in middle school that Peter was first suspended. Here's the story:

A supply teacher was unable to control the students. Peter was trying to follow instructions and told one of the other students to shut up. (Diplomacy is not his strong suit.) The student ignored him, naturally. Peter was completely overwhelmed and angry and tried to strangle the student.

Steve and I fully supported the suspension. I don't care how angry Peter was, or how out-of-control the class was, unless someone was in danger, there was no excuse for physically assaulting any other person.

Peter started high school when we moved to Colorado. His challenges then were mainly with his classmates. In one pivotal event, the teacher had assigned him to a group for a project. The rest of the class had chosen their own groupmates and Peter was the kid left behind. (Please, teachers, please assign groups!) The students in Peter's group rejected him. They ostracized him. He would speak, and they would completely ignore him.

If you think Aspy people don't notice when they are being shunned, you are absolutely wrong. They feel it. They just don't know how to deal with it.

One day in October, he came home from school and went up to his room. A while later, I went up to talk to him. He wasn't there. Instead, there was a note from him saying that he wasn't wanted and that he didn't want to live if he wasn't wanted. He was going to walk back to Canada to be with his best friend, Elliott.

Thanks to good neighbours and the power of prayer, he was found walking north toward Canada. I honestly can't remember how that was resolved with the school, but I know that the special education department was very supportive.

Because he found school stressful, we opted to have him complete grade 12 over two years.

Peter's school days | Wynn Anne's Meanderings

Peter is now in university. He still struggles with bureaucracy that doesn't make sense to him and with making new friends, but he has a small network of friends, a steady job that he has kept for at least three years, and enjoys most of his subjects.

My bottom-line observations, based on our personal and unique experience:
  • It's the individual teacher that makes the difference, not the school or the system. 
  • Going through a year with an unsympathetic teacher may not be the end of the world, provided the student knows he is loved and supported at home. 
  • Failure to comply with instructions may have more to do with understanding the reason for them than with defiance.
  • Individuals with social skills problems (like Aspergers) will need more support from leaders/teachers when they are working in groups or teams.
  • Chaotic environments can cause major outbursts; teachers should be taught de-escalation skills. Our kids don't want to be bad; they just don't know how to stop the storm. (Not a bad skill for all leaders to learn.)
  • Teachers should not assume that parents have been informed by their special-needs student about anything that went on in the classroom, including instructions, deadlines, etc.
I'll probably think of more points as I fall asleep tonight, so there may be a follow-up blog post in the future. 

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or reflections. 


  1. I agree, wholeheartedly, with your observations and I'm glad you shared Peter's story. It gives me hope to see ASD kids who make it through!

    1. Thanks, Momo. It does indeed get better as our kids get older. Hang in there!

  2. I will admit that as a "special area" teacher (teaching a once or twice a week non-core area subject, as opposed to a classroom teacher) I struggled with handling students with special needs, not because of a lack of love or desire to, but because of a lack of knowledge and training. My major in university was "foreign language education" so my courses taught me how to teach Spanish. We were required to take one, very basic, course on Special Education and that one course left me very ill-prepared and under-educated.
    As if that isn't bad enough, I very rarely was given any information regarding student's IEPs. I only saw students, at most, twice a week, giving me little time to really learn them and learn tactics that worked well in managing their behavior and I definitely noticed that I often did not have a great repertoire with these students because I just didn't understand what they needed (as you said, even just a 10-second explanation would have helped Peter). But I truly have witnessed first-hand the difference a single teacher can make, and it is amazing. I wish more teachers got the training needed to make school enjoyable for children who already struggle. Please note that this is not in any way an excuse for what Peter or any other child has gone through, just a very basic, sad, inside observation.

    1. Diane, they didn't do much when I did my B.Ed. either. Though, at the time I did mine, fewer kids were integrated into the mainstream. Of all the suggestions I made, the de-escalation skills training is the one that I see as most valuable, whether students are identified as special needs or not.


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