Autism

Special Education Speed Dating

I’ve heard it said that you don’t know how good you’ve got something until it’s gone. This is a story about the opposite. How I didn’t know how lacking something was until I left.

As the Yiddish saying goes, change your location, change your luck.

When we picked up and moved more than three thousand miles away from our home in order for me to stay home full-time and be a better care giver to our son, who is on the autistic spectrum, I anticipated many positive changes. The most pleasant surprise, however, has been the school system. I now realize, with that ever-clear hindsight, that our old school system was lacking. Sorely lacking.

The first inkling that Ben’s academic experience would be changing for the better was during my initial phone conversation with what turned out to be our new school district. I had compiled a list of questions that I’d posed to the special education departments of potential school districts. In this one-sided version of something akin to Speed Dating, I hoped to find the right fit for Ben and our family.

Question: Although our son is currently mainstreamed, we feel that there may come a time when he might greatly benefit from a different setting in subjects that give him the greatest struggle. Does your school district offer such alternatives?

Answer: Ma’am, we take the definition of an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) very seriously. We strive to meet the individual needs of your student.

(She had me at “IEP.”)

And so sight unseen, we chose our district. We have never questioned our decision.

The most important component of the success of any student is parent-teacher communication; so much the more so with a student who has special needs. Sure, Ben’s IEP lays out his strengths, deficits, and necessary accommodations, and having that legal document helps keep all the team players on the same page. But what makes our current experience so different is the frequency of communication between the autism support teacher and us. Not a week passes without an email or phone call about Ben and his current progress. If Ben is struggling, we hear about it immediately. When Ben has made a particularly good choice, we hear about that as well. His teachers are responsive to my concerns and quick with alternate ways to elicit information from Ben. They think out of the box and suggest methods to highlight Ben’s strengths and appropriately challenge him in order to strengthen his weaknesses. No matter what my concern, I never feel as though I am being dismissed; I am being heard.

Case-in-point: Ben struggles with reading. He has from the very start. Meeting after meeting, the resource specialist at our prior district would assure me that he was testing just fine. And yet my experience as an educator, as a parent, and as a lifelong voracious reader told me that there was a processing problem. We move here; I share my concern. After meeting with Ben and administering a test, it was clear that (mock surprise) Ben required additional assistance in language arts. Placement in a learning support class for last year was all he needed to move him in the right direction. Though he is now back in a mainstream class for language arts, his teachers recently noticed that he internalized and comprehends much better when text is read aloud to him rather than any sustained silent reading. In addition to sharing this information with me, the autism support teacher has made arrangements for us to receive audio versions of his assigned readings.

Caring for a special needs child is hard work. The challenges are immeasurable. So, too, is my gratitude for finding a place where educators and parents can work hand-in-hand.

If only Speed Dating was this successful…

For more on kids with special needs, read about preparing for a bar mitzvah with ADHD, one mom’s attempt to teach her autistic son how to be “cool,” and four easy behavioral tips for kids with special needs.   

Rebecca Einstein SchorrOrdained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Her writing appears regularly on various sites and she is a frequent guest on Huffington Post Live. Rebecca is a contributor toThe Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality (CCAR Press, April 2014), and is the co-editor of a forthcoming title on the impact of forty years of women in the rabbinate. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life (www.rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com), Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr.

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