I learned a valuable lesson when a preschool teacher gave up on my child with special needs.
My second son has autism. We got an official diagnosis just before he turned three, but we knew he was atypical long before that. He’s marched to his own beat since he was born. We feel lucky to see the world through his eyes.
This year, he started part-time preschool. Walker goes to a very small private school a few times a week and learns letters, shapes, colors, and numbers. More importantly, he learns how to be part of a group, follow directions, and communicate his needs without his parents present.
He loves it. We are halfway through his first year as a student, and he is thriving.
But we got off to a rough start.
After just four days in her classroom, his first teacher requested that he be transferred to a different class. By all accounts, he was happy, friendly, smart, and gentle. The only real “problem” was that he was unable to sit still for as long as the other kids. He explored the classroom when he was overwhelmed, and it frustrated her.
The teacher couldn’t figure out how to keep her class in order when one was exploring instead of sitting quietly.
Part of me understood. I’m sure it’s a challenge to explain special needs to preschoolers. They might not understand that their friend is a little different and gets a little leeway with the rules.
But a much bigger part of me wanted to shout, “What the hell did you expect?!”
First of all, he’s three. Surely, he can’t be the only three-year-old in the building that doesn’t like sitting still.
Secondly, you knew he had some special needs related to autism before you admitted him. Before we ever enrolled him, everyone knew he was atypical. I laid out exactly how his autism presents. He is verbal but not always conversational. That doesn’t present much of an issue if you know ahead of time. He can and does answer simple questions and requests what he needs. The only accommodation he really needs is the chance to walk away if something is too much. That’s it. His teacher assured me she was willing to work with him to make him as successful as he could be.
But she gave up on him after four measly days with no warning at all. The director actually transferred him midday without any warning. I had no idea. By the time I knew he was moving, he had already spent the afternoon in a classroom I knew nothing about.
His teacher’s only complaint was that he needed exactly what I said he would need? I didn’t even get a chance to try to help her rein him in a little. He wasn’t easy, so she wanted him out.
So much for accommodating his special needs.
It shattered my heart. Was this the beginning of a long life full of people who just wouldn’t have it in them to take the extra time to understand my boy?
I spent the weekend agonizing about whether he should keep attending. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I had no clue what he was capable of. Was I was totally screwing up being his mom? That has been my only fear from the moment I found out he’s autistic. I wanted to make the best possible decision for him, and I had no clue how to proceed.
Ultimately, my husband convinced me that I’d be happiest if I tried to stay calm in the face of all this emotion. We would approach the next school day with cautious optimism. Maybe the new classroom would be exactly what he needed. If it wasn’t, he never had to go back.
I’m so glad we decided to trust his gut.
We went into school the next morning, and he ran past his old classroom into the new one. He hugged his new teachers the minute he saw them and started showing me around the classroom. His new teachers had already prepared a name tag, a cubby, and a coat hook and added his name to the wall. They greeted him warmly and couldn’t stop telling me how happy they were to have him. In one afternoon, he had sealed his place in their hearts. They were so impressed that he knew his letters, colors, shapes and numbers already.
How did they figure that out in one afternoon?
I knew in that moment that they were dedicated to my baby and would take the time to get to know him.
He hasn’t had a single bad day with them.
For the last three months, he has run into their open arms every morning. I’ve spent some time in their classroom, and they treat Walker just like everyone else. They can see his special needs, but they only come into play when he shows them that it’s necessary. Otherwise, he’s just one of the gang. He rises to the occasion.
On the rare day when he is a little overwhelmed by a chaotic special occasion, they can see it, and they help him find a quiet place where he’s more comfortable. They don’t mind if he needs a minute to wander, script, or sing. They know we will come back.
His teachers get him.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson about parenting a child who is different.
Sometimes, people aren’t going to want to understand him, and it’s going to hurt. Right now, he’s too little to really understand exclusion, so it mostly hurts me. Someday, he will understand, and it will hurt him too. I know that I will always be angry and sad when I see him struggle to find his place.
That pain is, unfortunately, unavoidable. I hope that as autism awareness increases, more people will commit themselves to inclusion. As he grows up, I hope he finds more spaces where he feels like he belongs. I will always do whatever I can to help him find those spaces. But this is a world full of round holes, and my son is kind of a square peg.
This experience reminded me that there is value in holding my emotions, letting them have a place, then choosing to set them aside. I need to be able to see through my pain and fierce love for him so I can make rational decisions based solely on what Walker’s best outcome will be.
If I had pitched a fit and pulled him from the school at the first sign of injustice, he would have missed this beautiful year with teachers and friends who love him.
I can’t let my fear of painful experiences rule his life. There are a lot of amazing people, like his current teachers, who will see him. They will truly understand all that he is. They will know right away that he is smart and sweet and funny and kind. They’ll be willing to figure out just what makes him tick. And they won’t give up on him just because his special needs mean he has to do some things his own way.
In the end, Walker found his place. His first teacher lost more than she realizes. She will never know how lucky she would have been to get to know him.