Here is a story I wrote for an autism website. It is being considered for publication in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Whether or not it is published, writing it gave me a sense of freedom, reminding me that dealing with autism has many trials, but we are making it even through all the heart-wrenching times. This story is being considered for the Changed Attitudes section of the book. Maybe reading it will also alter your views of handicapped people.
It was a September morning, the sun shining bright, the excitement of a new school year fueling our spirit. It was our first month living in Belgium, a new town, a new school, new friends and activities. I had breakfast on the table and clothes waiting on a chair for my 11 year old son, Kaeden. Of course, there were also all his picture cards lined up to help him organise his morning chores. As I climbed the stairs to wake him for this day, a slight panic started to form in the pit of my stomach. My son has autism, borderline asperger's/PDD-NOS, with a combination of ADHD. Today was his first day in this new school, where nobody knew about his diagnosis. Yet I was thrilled at the same time. This little boy was going to be placed in a special needs school had we continued living in Holland, but with our move to Belgium came the opportunity to once again make a go of it in the local, "normal" school.
You see, as his mother, the idea of him being handicapped and being unable to live a so-called normal life squeezed the breath from my lungs and caused a cloud of darkness to envelop my spirit in sadness. I had already been dealt the blow of his first diagnosis of ADHD a few years prior, but the newer autism diagnosis was one which just tore my heart to shreds. It wasn't that I didn't realize my son was a bit different than other children, a bit behind the mental age of his peers, a bit more unruly and wiggly, a bit more aggressive, a bit too friendly with strangers. Of course I knew all those things, but in my heart, I could not see him as being anything other than my child, the tiny baby that I carried in my womb and held close to me after giving birth, the child I nurtured with the milk from my own body, the child I watched grow and take form and become the Kaeden that he is today. Today, yes, a chance to once again hide his disability and hide my own inability to accept him for exactly who he is.
As my son woke and quickly jumped up with the excitemet of school on the horizon, I was filled with relief. Mornings for Kaeden are extremely difficult, and getting him ready on time is always a chore. Today he jumped right up, proving to me that this new start was a good choice for him, and in my mind I conjured up images of him bringing real friends home from shool to play, taking part in school activities, catching up in reading and writing and graduating at the top of his class. As we prepared for our first day of school, I was filled with peace.
The peace was short lived. After his first day in his new school, beaming with pride as I went to pick him up, a smile on my face ready to see him and hear all about his day, I was confronted by the director of the school. She informed me that Kaeden seemed ill-prepared for his age group and they had placed him in a class one level down. She also wanted him to be tested and see what options were available for Kaeden. My heart sunk, my breath became labored, tears started to form in my eyes. Was I the only one who could see this child's potential? Was I the only one who cared about giving him the very best? Why couldn't he make it through one day without giving me these new problems? I felt totally defeated.
As the testing was completed over the course of a couple weeks, my son continued to attend the local school. He seemed happy enough there, but was not making any real progress, hadn't formed any real clicks with any of the kids. With all the results compiled, we went to the dreaded appointment for the results. I heard them tell me all the scores, explain all the reasons he could not be successful in their school, and then heard a scream tear through my body as they told me they had made an appointment for me to visit the special needs school just a short bus ride from our home. I had failed. I had failed at hiding his disability and I was being punished by reality. My son was not equipped to deal with life at a normal school.
We headed to the special needs school and were greeted with kindness. Yes, they had the training to help children like Kaeden, yes, he could learn all the same material, just at an individual level suited to him. As they explained the concept of their school, my sadness began to turn around once again. This school was close to home, he would have the service of a bus to take him there and home again, he would have a class with a minimal number of students, the teachers were specially trained to deal with learning disabilities, and there were a number of children from our neighborhood who also attended the school. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad afterall, I thought, as we met with the teacher that would be his. I looked at the classroom walls with children's pictures and posters hanging and watched as she ruffled my son's hair. He had a big smile on his face as she showed him where he could hang his coat, where he would sit next to his classmates. And thus began his life at yet another new school.
As I returned home and waited for his bus in the afternoon, I felt sadness again as I watched all the mama's picking their children up across the street from my house at the local school, all smiling and laughing, happily engaged in conversation. I wanted to be one of them. That feeling faded as I saw my son's bus arrive and he stepped off running to me with a smile plastered across his face. All thoughts of the "normal" moms left my mind as I headed to our home hearing my son talk about his new school and the kids he had played with during recess.
This happiness was also short-lived as week after week I received calls from the school to discuss Kaeden's behavior. It was always with dread that I answered my phone, waiting to hear what he'd done now to be put in detention. I was angered that this school that had given me promises of being equipped to deal with children like my son, seemed unable to do anything to help him. It was an emotional visit when I met with the director and was given the name of yet another school that might be more suitable for my son.
I put off contacting the school until I could no longer accept the position my son was in day after day at his current school. I finally made an appointment to meet with the school. As I walked through the doors of St. Elisabeth school, I looked around me and recognized this was not at all a typical school. For one thing, it was huge, the playground outside was filled with therapeutic types of equipment rather than the typical swings and slide, and there were many differnt children walking through the hallways. By this, I mean children in wheelchairs, children with down's syndrome, children with other noticeable handicaps. As I gave my name at the reception, she asked me if I needed someone from the school or from the boarding home. I searched through my purse for the name of the lady I was supposed to meet, praying it was someone from the school. It was. As she greeted me and we toured the school, I was totally overwhelmed. She showed me the swimming pool in the school, the trampoline room used for therapy, the different areas of the school all containing classrooms for specific handicaps. And then we reached the autism department. I entered with skepticism, feeling extremely uneasy. The classroom had 6 desks, each their own cubicle. There were very few pictures on the walls, to help the children concentrate she explained. There were special boards with each child's name and their own set of tasks for each 20 minute period of the day. It was a totally structured and strict environment. It didn't look like a fun place to be, rather a place to work. I was hardened by this point in my search for a perfect school, and made statements that told her I was not happy with all the problems we had encountered and wanted proof that he would be able to be successful here. What proof could she give me? She explained that some children need the extra structure of a day completely lined out for them, that they need separation from other children in order to stay on task. She told me that the classrooms had no more than six children to give them the individual attention they need, and that they still had recess and special classes. She offered the benefit of children being able to stay until they reach the age of 22, the advantage of the school also having a home, and a daycare. I wasn't convinced, my son was a happy, healthy little boy, he didn't look the part of the hadicapped kids I had seen in the hallway, how would he ever be normalized in society if he had to be in such an environment? I disn't want to face the truth of my son's handicap.
As we returned to her office where she gave me some brochures, she informed me that there was a waiting list for the autism classes, but that they were planning to create another classroom at the start of the next school year if I wanted to register Kaeden. I told her I would consider it, and made another appointment in which I could bring Kaeden with me. We went to the appointment and Kaeden was so thrilled with the trampolines and swimming pool in the school, he was convinced this was the place for him to be. As he walked down the halls, he wasn't aware or bothered by the faces he encounterd, a fact that didn't go unnoticed. As I signed my name next to the little X, I felt betrayed by God, the system, my son. I just wanted my pitiful self to be swallowed up, I didn't want to deal with all this any more. I was trying to do what was best for my child, but I just didn't know what that was anymore. I didn't know how to help him be successful.
After the summer vacation, another September was upon us. The air was fresh and crisp with the promise of another school year in the air. As I prepared Kaeden for his new school, he was happy and excited, couldn't wait to go in and meet his new friends. When we heard the bus pull up outside, I gave him a kiss and opened the door. As I looked into the windows of the school bus, lots of little faces were staring back at me. Children with handicaps, noticeable handicaps. One little boy had his face plastered against the window. I couldn't peel my eyes from his face, his face showing the physical signs of down's syndrome. He gave me a huge smile, and a little wave as the bus carried my son away from me once again. I closed the door and went into my home and cried. Cried tears for the child I could not have. Cried tears for the mother I could not be. Cried tears for the anger and sadness that filled my soul.
Each day as I put Kaeden on the bus, those faces stared down at me from the window. I came to recognize some of the faces, especially the little boy that waved to me each morning. I came to recognize them not as handicpped people, but for the smiles and rumpled hair, the people behind the faces. Finally one morning as I saw Kaeden take his seat, I realized that my heart was free. I didn't feel the pain that I did every other morning. I felt peaceful and secure. As I looked up at the windows filled with children headed to their special school, I waved back at the little boy staring down at me. With extra entusiasm, he waved at me and the biggest smile I've ever seen lighted up his entire face. And as I returned his smile, I sent God a thankful prayer for giving me the opportunity to accept these people, these disabled people, my son! My son had courage and I was finally accwepting him for who he is.
Each morning, I await the little faces staring at me from the windows of the bus. I can't wait to wave to my little friend and capture the feeling of sunshine he always brings me. And as the bus pulls away heading for St. Elisabeth school, I am happy that my son is sitting there next to all those people, people that know compassion and love, people that are accepting and non-judgemental. People that smile from the windows of a bus.