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How Dedicated Educators Helped My Autistic Son Succeed

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

I am a glass half full kind of person. That’s why I’m still relatively sane even though I’ve raised an autistic child who has attended school for 21 years (so far) if you include university and college. The sanity reference is not due to my son’s neurodiversity (which I share, by the way), but from trying to help an autistic learner to manage in a school system designed for typical students. Stressful? Ya think?

Gotta tell you though, school was not an easy place for him to be. The speed and the volume of the curriculum, the sensory and social demands — they were all just too much for him to face every day. And a few of the teachers were awful.

I cringe at the memories, but I have to be honest: there were a few stellar moments in the raising of this awesome kid where I was less than mature in my approach with the rigid and less tolerant teaching staff. Downright difficult, I would say. I felt totally within my rights, of course, because if someone was not giving my child what he needed and was entitled to receive, well, they had to fix that. Now. Denying him his accommodations was no small deal; he was still learning how to manage his emotions and when overwhelmed, would become inert, zoned out, almost catatonic.

But here’s our truth: the bad apples were few and in fact, great educators and support staff saved my son. Michelle, Jim, Alice, Don, Helen, Donna and Charlene and many others shared not only their first names, but extra hours after school, personal email addresses and kindness in abundance. They went over and above time after time. I know not everyone has been as fortunate as my Daniel, and not everyone has an autism advocate and consultant for a parent.

Though educators don’t always know how to help our kids, so many of them do know how to be kind, do like working with young people and do want to help. Teachers, child and youth workers and educational assistants helped my Daniel to believe in himself, gave him opportunities to be great, and worked hard to increase his social currency when he could not do it alone.

Let me share a true story. A wonderful vice-principal, Kelly, pulled my son back from the brink one crisp fall day in Grade 10. We were in her office on a very difficult morning. He sat on a chair, knees drawn up to his chest, chewing on the neckline of the t-shirt he had stretched down over his legs. His face was flushed. He told her that he just could not go on any longer. Life was just too hard. School was too hard every single day. He didn’t feel like he belonged in school or in the world.

It was devastating for him to feel that way, and it gutted me to hear it.

This is how Vice Principal Kelly handled that situation. Kelly held her hand up in front of her, inches from her face, and said something like this:

“Daniel, you look at this situation and you see only one option — to give up. Now, imagine my hand is a stop sign. From where you are sitting, you only see the word STOP. But me? From where I sit, I see options.

On this side of the sign, I see that if you are having a rough day, you can come to the office and use the meeting room to relax or to do your work. I see that if you are having such a bad morning that you can’t get to school, you can stay home. You’re a great student — we’ll get you your homework and you can take care of yourself.”

As she spoke, my son slowly unfurled. He stopped chewing. Stopped rocking. He looked at me with something other than fear in his eyes for the first time in a long time. Was it hope? I could see anxiety melting away.

“How does that plan sound, Daniel?’ she asked him.

Good, apparently.

That meeting was a game-changer. It gave him a semblance of control over his anxiety: if it got the better of him, he had choices.

He’s such a great kid. In the two-and-a-half years he had left in high school, he only stayed home with anxiety only once — though in truth, he continued to struggle with it every single day. He didn’t want anxiety to be the boss of him. Somehow knowing he could choose to leave his class and go to the office — or stay home if needed — was enough to get him through.

Kelly wasn’t done with him, though.

A month later, that wonderful woman helped him get funding to start a video game club. In short order, Daniel felt like he belonged in his high school. His club became a social group for many of the quirky, disenfranchised boys who were neither jocks, musicians, or too cool to be brainy.

I could write a month’s worth of posts with stories of wonderful things other teachers have done for my child as well. They come easier than the stories of supports not given or dignity denied because in my case, they outweigh the latter. That may be because I am an advocate, but really, in my heart I know it is because of my child.

No matter how hard things got, he never gave up. Fall down 10 times, get up 11. His character, combined with access to teachers willing to use out-of-the-box thinking, allow him to graduate high school with a scholarship to university.

As I write this, Daniel has completed an honors degree in Communications, post-grad certificates in both children’s media and positive psychology, and is on track to complete another honors degree — this one in social work — by the end of June 2020. He is a professional public speaker, educating families about autism.

Could I have imagined, 15 or 20 years ago, that my child would grow up to achieve a professional degree that allows him to provide counseling to others, and that he would be a professional communicator with an incredible sense of humor?

Um, yeah. Since he is the most determined person I have ever met, I have never doubted that he would achieve anything he set his mind to do. That makes it sound easy, and it most assuredly was not. Getting him started and getting him to make a decision — wowzers. That has been a challenge for him.

He had help along the way, lots of help. And for that, I want to thank Kelly and all the other gifted educators. You made such a difference in my son’s life, and now he is paying that forward by making a difference for other people. Your influence will continue to resonate in the work he continues to do.

Getty image by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz.

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