Ever since Isla was diagnosed with autism, our goal has been to mainstream her by Kindergarten. Mainstreaming refers to having a child with special needs in a traditional classroom setting, with supports as needed. This could be in the form of an aide, pull out services for speech or OT, or whatever else the student may need. The special education model is designed to provide a special needs student access to the least restrictive environment possible while still maintaining growth and achievement. At least in theory. In practice it’s not nearly that smooth.
As a former teacher, I have had many children mainstreamed in my classroom. There is so much value in having children with varying abilities and needs in one classroom, both for typically developing children, as well as children with special needs, that we knew this was the experience we wanted for Isla. I will say that this is easier to do in some districts than others. The district I taught in served mainly low income children and the resources were very limited. However, the district we live in is fortunate enough to be rife with resources and I feel confident in my ability to advocate for her, so we knew the only obstacle in mainstreaming would be her ability to function in the traditional setting.
With this goal in mind, we went to work. If you’ve been following along, you may remember that we started with a failed attempt at ABA and opted instead for a classroom setting. When she turned 3, all of her services were transferred from the state to the school district. Isla spent all last year in a special education preschool class that focused on social language. All the children in her class had IEPs (Individualized Education Plans- basically a legal document stating that these are the areas the child needs to work on and this is what the district is going to do to help the child meet the goals.) that focused on areas of language development. They were also joined two days a week by typically developing children so they could practice their new skills. About halfway through the year, we also started ABA therapy again. We found a company whose goals aligned with ours and were much more flexible on hours.
We loved the idea of the special ed program, but it definitely had it’s draw backs. It was four days a week, which was a lot for a 3 year old. Isla didn’t love it either, which made the demanding schedule even harder. School should be fun at this age and our mornings were filled with lots of tears. The program itself was very demanding, in that the day was very structured and while there was a fair amount of play, it was very structured to accommodate the varying needs of the class. While this can certainly work very well for lots of children with special needs, it does not work well for our strong headed little lady. She does not do well with being told exactly what to do (no clue where she got that from! 😏) and she fought back, a lot.
Around May, we began to notice a difference in Isla. Her language was becoming more conversational and she was using language to share more of her thoughts and observations. She was calm and regulated more than not. Changes seem to come all at once with her. The pattern seems to be a few hard months where were having to go back to basics and work on things we thought we were done with and then all of a sudden, one day, we wake up to a whole new kids who has a host of new skills. I always think of these as little breadcrumbs that we are on the right path.
This was around the same time we had to decide if she would attend the district’s summer session. With the progress she’d shown, we couldn’t help but think she deserved a break. But the idea of her going from being in a structured environment 12 hours a week to nothing didn’t seem wise either. We decided to put her back in her old preschool program that she started before her diagnosis to keep her in the routine of going to school, and to bring some fun back into the whole idea of school. We also thought that this could be a good test to see how she does in a traditional preschool program without the demands, an aide or a teacher that was specifically trained in special needs. Basically, we kind of threw her to the wolves to see how she’d do. But, she would still be doing ABA so we felt confident she would still be supported in all the ways she needed. I will admit, the deciding factor was that Nolan was also old enough to go and I got two mornings a week to myself! Selfish? Probably, but it was only 6 weeks and if it was a train wreck we could always stop.
I’ll admit, I held my breath for the first few weeks. Typically, everything is okay until it’s not with her. I figured the first couple of days would go smoothly, but she’d meltdown at home, or worse- at school. But every day I got a sparkling report from her teacher. She was seeing things we hadn’t seen her do in the special ed class (seeking out peer interactions, asking for help, staying regulated all day).
At first I was convinced they were lying to me and just sugar coating it, but we saw a tremendous difference in her at home too. All of a sudden, she was showing an interest in potty training and basically accomplished it in 6 weeks- something we had been trying to approach since late winter/early spring. Literally everyone commented on how she seemed like a totally different girl. She was calmer overall and when she did become disregulated, she was able to come back down with ease (sometimes even all by herself!). It was hard to deny her progress and we couldn’t help but think it was due to the change in environment.
It is worth noting that at the end of May, just before the school year ended, she had her tonsils removed. The main reason for doing so was that she had sleep apnea and we felt that was interfering with her quality of sleep. While we’ll never know for sure, it is possible that the tonsils were that bothersome and/or her quality of sleep improved that much that it affected this change. While I do think this played a minor role, I think the majority of it is due to the change in school environment and reduction of demands placed on her throughout the day.
There are a few reasons I think this change worked well for her. Her new school is play based and child lead, with many different sensory activities that Isla can freely choose. In the special education setting, her day was very regimented, structured and teacher led with very little room for deviation. Our opinionated girl is not about being told what to do, even a little bit, so the ability to decide what kind of sensory input her body needs without being told is key. I also think being around a majority of typically developing children helps tremendously. While she is opinionated, she responds very well to the power of suggestion and what peers are doing. This leads me to believe that some of her behaviors were learned in the special ed setting, but I’m sure she will pick up a few less desirable habits in the traditional setting too. On top of that, we felt that the staff at the new school truly loved our kids and wanted to help them grow. We never got that warm fuzzy feeling at the other school and it never felt just “right” (which is specific to that class, not to special education in general).
The other thing that helped make our decision easier was that we had the unique ability to have her ABA therapist go to school with her for an hour each week. Isla’s biggest area of need is in social situations and we think having a devoted time to work with someone who specializes in this will help bridge the gap.
Of course, things can always change on a dime. If we see any kind of regression or we feel that she needs more support, then we will reassess. But we felt that we owed it to her to at least give her an opportunity to try it out. She had proven to us with all the progress made over the summer that she could handle it. Because of how her birthday falls, she will do Transitional Kindergarten next year. If Kindergarten was next year, we may have gone a different route, but she’s got so much time and none of our concerns are academic. She is a kid first and she deserves the chance to have fun and play before the real demands of school begin.
This has all been another lesson in listening and believing in our daughter first and the opinions of the “experts” second. As her parents, we really do know her best and now that she’s getting older, we can take her opinions into account as well. It’s been a hard decision that we’ve spent a lot of time on, but about a month into the school year she is doings so well!