My husband and I attended public elementary, middle, and high schools, and then graduated from public universities. We work as educators in public school districts and spend our work days regurgitating acronyms and promoting the tenets of public education in the state of Florida.
So, we’re educators. But we’re also parents. Despite a smooth preschool experience and a positive year of kindergarten in public school, my husband and I started to recognize some of the deficits of the public education system when it comes to educating our son, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder.
We enrolled William in a regular standards, self-contained program for students with social behavior communication disabilities for elementary school, knowing that he may eventually need a modified curriculum, and knowing that we would need other options in a few years.
In our county, students in regular standards autism classrooms in elementary school are either mainstreamed for middle school, or they attend social behavior programs with students who are diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorders. As someone who worked extensively with EBD classrooms for two years, I’m aware that there are similarities in behaviors and need, but often there are far more differences between the EBD and the ASD student. I didn’t see either future option as feasible for my son, so my husband and I had already begun researching middle school options. Then, when first grade began and each day, my son came home more and more withdrawn and anxious, we realized we needed other options now.
Not that I would ever wish a devastating storm on anyone, but the impending Hurricane Irma gave me the extra push I needed to pull William from his current setting. I picked him up from school early on September 7, only three miserable weeks after the first day, and I never brought him back.
Resources are hard to find for people with disabilities, plain and simple. We already knew that, as my son’s name sat on wait list upon wait list in the entire Tampa Bay area for nearly three years just for occupational therapy. But as far as schooling goes, hard to find is an understatement. We hit brick wall after brick wall searching for charter, public, and private schools that could possibly offer our son what his IEP indicates that he needs. I spoke to countless principals and directors who told me that my son wouldn’t fit. We considered relocated. Nobody wanted William. He just didn’t fit anywhere among the very small list of possible schools. It was heartbreaking.
Then, on a quick google search, my husband stumbled upon a school that combines half-day academics with half-day one-on-one Applied Behavior Analysis. We called. We emailed. We toured. We budgeted. We signed paperwork. We hoped.
And then we hit another brick wall, one we’re all too familiar with: finances and insurance.
We had already lost a portion of my son’s McKay scholarship (http://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/k-12-scholarship-programs/mckay/) for not using it in August, but on top of that, we faced a deadline of October 2 to get my son enrolled somewhere. So we fought. My husband took it upon himself to contact our insurance company daily to get answers to our copays and out of pocket maximum for the Applied Behavior Analysis portion of our cost.
We still don’t have a solid answer. But on October 2, the deadline for the McKay scholarship, William started school.
He is in a classroom in a large clinical office with a certified teacher, a trained behavior assistant, and four other children—all girls, which is completely odd for us because most of his classes (and autism in general) have been majority boys. Once the insurance authorization is approved (fingers crossed this will finally happen next week), he will spend three hours of the afternoon one-on-one with a BCBA, learning to modify inappropriate behaviors and replace them with appropriate behaviors, focusing on social skills and increased communication. The office is safe and protected by locks, entry by password only, and video surveillance. The facility offers two sensory rooms with crash pads, trampolines, train tables, slides, and other fun for sensory-seekers like my boy. His teacher, a Disney fanatic just like William, gave me her phone number and email address upon arrival, and sits to talk to me in depth at the end of the day every day. Staff members place a Communication Book inside William’s backpack binder with a detailed home note: subjects he learned, behaviors he exhibited, snacks he ate.
William looks forward to school again. He is happy when I drop him off and when I pick him up, and the relief that my husband and I feel can’t even be quantified. He hugs his teacher goodbye, calls her by name, and unprompted, tells her, “I yuv you.” He can tell when people care. He can tell when he’s safe. They care. He’s safe.
It was a good change.