When a Meeting Changed the Academic Trajectory of My Son on the Autism Spectrum
We received the most amazing letter this week from our son’s university. It said, “On behalf of M University, it is my privilege to congratulate you on making the Dean’s List for the Spring 2017 semester. Your high grade point average for the past semester reflects both your academic potential and your hard work.” I sat with tears streaming down my face as I embraced this unforeseen moment.
I am sure you might be thinking I am just a doting mom, bragging on her freshman, here we go again, another helicopter parent of the perfect generation of over-achievers. Our story is different, however. As I sit with this letter in my hand, I am transcended back to many years of worry, wonder and fear over how my son’s life would progress. At the age of 12, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s. At the time, it was a welcomed explanation to years of learning challenges, meltdowns, slow fine and gross motor development, lack of friends to play with, and oddities no one could really understand or diagnose. Once we had the diagnoses, we became avid readers and learners, which led us to understand him in new ways we had not before. In grades one through eight, he was in a good public school system with an IEP and teachers who supported us along the way. They had special educators who worked with him often one-on-one. We advocated constantly to ensure his needs were met. We learned early on that partnering with the educators and supporting them led to a better outcome.
When he hit high school, however, the story changed. In his ninth-grade year, his class size jumped up to over 500 students. He was suddenly thrown into a separated world of kids with cognitive and behavior challenges. To focus and learn had become an everyday struggle. We had countless meetings inclusive of taking in our own psychologist to seek solutions and ways to help him succeed.
In the beginning of the second semester of his freshman year, we had a meeting that changed his trajectory forever. Assembled around a conference table in a dark, crowded room were all his teachers, guidance counselors, the principal of his class and his resource counselors. None of them seemed to have any solutions or confidence in our son’s ability to succeed. In that meeting, we were told there was nothing they could do to help. They suggested we put our son on a pass-fail system. They felt this would be easier and would allow him to learn without being held accountable to a grade. This would mean that at the end of high school, he would get a certificate saying he attended and completed 12 grades. He would not have a qualifying GPA or enough credits to continue to college. In this meeting, they told us in their opinion he would never attend college and a technical school might be an alternative.
I left that meeting angry and frustrated that in one of the best school systems in the country, they would not continue to help my child. Our great system was failing us and him. He spent that semester miserable, full of self-doubt and fighting hard to stay afloat. His assigned resource teacher stopped working to help him at all. At the end of the semester, she flunked him in math as she had predicted could happen. Our son was devastated. He had never failed a class. We were furious. As I watched this sweet young man crying and feeling like a failure, I realized we could not allow this to happen any longer. We had worked too hard, and we realized his potential. We had to find some place better for him to thrive. I assured him that he was not a failure and that we would seek other places that understood his way of learning and would help him achieve his goals.
In the city we live in, we are fortunate to have many options for schools. Unfortunately, many of them are not necessarily great for individuals on the spectrum. Through diligent research, my husband and I found a small private school three miles from our house that we had never explored. It turned out to be a small college prep school. They could handle an IEP, but more importantly, they were all about inclusiveness, community and fellowship. The minute we entered the halls, my son had a huge smile on his face and said, “I can learn here. I think I found my home.” The transformation that occurred over that next three years was phenomenal. He was awarded honors for character, and he learned to speak regularly in public. He made friends, participated on teams, and felt like for the first time that he was part of something larger than himself.
He graduated and was accepted into a local university as a cyber security major. He moved onto campus and thrived his first year. When I think back to that day of his freshman year, it scares me to think we could have just been passive. We could have listened to what they said and taken it as gospel. Fortunately, we did not. We refused for them to define his future. We continued to work with the staff in his new school as a team. They were insistent in teaching him to advocate for himself. By his senior year, he was running his IEP meetings to identify his accommodations needed to ensure academic success. The lesson we took away was never, ever stop advocating for your child. If you don’t like the answers you get when you have these amazing children, never stop pushing the envelope and seeking more on their behalf. Success is possible. Don’t ever give up and don’t ever stop dreaming of what is possible versus focusing on what is not.
For our son, making Dean’s List has tremendous significance. It was the culmination of 19 years of fighting, seeking, loving unconditionally, and believing in our child despite the challenges. We cannot wait to see what the next three years of college brings and what his future holds.
Editor’s note: This story has been published with the permission of the author’s son.
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