Embracing special education

The first time someone used the term ‘special education’ regarding my son, I was shocked.

At the time, he was in three-year-old preschool, being evaluated by the Area Education Agency (AEA) for social deficiencies. He didn’t show any signs of intellectual or physical disability, he just had a hard time adjusting to changes in his environment and transitioning between different tasks. I wanted to say, “But he doesn’t need special education. He’s not disabled!” (At that time, we had no idea that he was displaying classic symptoms of autism.)

I entered a stage of denial. I thought, “They can call it whatever they want, but it’s not really special education.” At least not the special education I was familiar with, anyway. Let me be honest – there’s a stigma that surrounds special education, one I didn’t want him to have to deal with.

My childhood experiences with special education were minimal at best. The students receiving special education at my school had obvious, severe physical or cognitive disabilities and no interaction with the general student population. Not surprisingly, my perception of special education was extremely limited and misguided.

My son at age three

My son was placed on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a few years, then removed from it before he started kindergarten because the evaluators felt he had improved enough to no longer need an IEP. After that, things at school were OK for awhile, not perfect, but he was doing well academically and we assumed that he would eventually grow out of the behavioral problems he was having and develop the skills he needed to help him deal with his issues.

In reality, the issues became worse as he got older. By the time he was in fifth grade, I was getting daily calls or emails from the school about problems he was having. He’d lose a game at recess and refuse to come inside. Or he’d get upset about something and throw a book. He’d miss one question on a test and rip up the paper. Once he became so distraught about getting a flu shot that I had to physically restrain him just so the nurse could get the needle into his arm.

When he was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in fifth grade at age 11, he was placed back on an IEP, which he has been on ever since and will most likely continue to be on until he graduates. He started receiving special education services and, honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it.

What changed for me? How did I manage such a total 180-degree reversal?

Let’s talk first about what special education is. On a basic level, special education is defined as specially designed instruction tailored to meet the unique needs of a student eligible to receive special education services.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-fairy-tale land, many children with disabilities in the U.S. were prohibited by state law from receiving education in public schools. Children who were blind, deaf, or labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded” were explicitly excluded from attending public schools, and most lived in state institutions where they received little to no educational or rehabilitative services.

Federal legislation in the 1970s extended civil rights to people with disabilities by providing opportunities for them through education, employment, and various other settings. Public schools are now legally required to evaluate disabled children and create an educational plan (i.e., an IEP) with parent input so as to emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students.

Now that my son has a diagnosis and is receiving special education services, just about everything in his life has improved. There are still struggles from time to time, but the good days far outweigh the bad.

His IEP allows him to take breaks when he feels he’s getting overwhelmed. He is able to remove himself from a potentially bad situation and go to the special education room until he calms down. This one concession alone has been so valuable to him, the school, and us. He has so many fewer meltdowns than before, and hardly any disruptive behaviors. He is able to learn better and doesn’t create distractions in the classroom. Phone calls from the school are now few and far between.

And he has been blessed with such amazing special education teachers. Words are inaccurate to describe how valuable these people are. Their job is not easy, and yet they are able to help improve the lives of their students and their students’ families. His middle school special education teacher used to take the time every day after school to write us an email, letting us know how his day was and whether or not there were any issues. And I have to imagine she did that for all her students, not just us.

Flying his octopus kite

Would I rather my son just be a normal kid who didn’t need special education services? That’s a hard question to answer. His autism has many positive characteristics that the world would miss out on if he were just a normal person. As much as I wish he could just be an ordinary kid for his sake, his autistic mind works in beautiful, extraordinary, mysterious ways, ways that I believe will one day be of great benefit to the world.

While autism makes some things more challenging for him, it also makes him such an incredible human being. That is truly a beautiful thing to witness and makes me so proud to be his mom. His autism makes him who he is. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.


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