Friday, August 24, 2007

Cleared for Take Off

Last year at this time we had just moved to Canada from NYC where MK had been doing very well in school. He had made friends who came over for spontaneous play dates, he felt confident and happy and his report card was all As and Bs.

In my naivety I assumed that this would mean relatively smooth sailing into his new school. The kids would surely be more gentle and easy going than the little New Yorkers, so MK should fit in without too much trouble. My fellow Canadians cared less about grade school academics than Americans did and, as they have no real practice of standardized measurement, they had more room to be flexible. What, I would have asked --if I had even thought to ask-- could possibly go wrong?

I could write thousands of words in answer to that question now, but the short version is: Being comfortable in one social situation does not equal being comfortable in all social situations. Children from smaller, less sophisticated urban centers are not --surprise, surprise-- always as tolerant and inclusive as their big-city counterparts. And above all, having a flexible teaching system is only of any use if you have good teachers. With no formal curriculum or standards, teachers base their evaluations and their teaching on gut feeling and, without training, gut feelings about kids on the spectrum can be extremely misleading. Another thing that I found out was that some people outside New York City don't actually have a very high opinion of it. (When the school informed us that MKs report cards and the results of his statewide tests from New York would not be taken into consideration in trying to get a handle on his overall academic competence, it was made clear to us that the wackiness of NYC made it impossible to take seriously.)

The upshot was that the kids generally shunned him and gave him a hard time, while the teachers assumed, based on his odd way of talking, his nervousness, his unusual questions and his tendency to cry when scared or frustrated, that he was incapable of keeping up academically. They then basically stopped teaching him and stopped expecting him to do things. Naturally, being marginalized by the teachers did nothing to improve MK's social standing or confidence.

At the end of the year, MK was given a report card with asterisks instead of marks in all subjects but math (math being to only subject where they used tests and MK never getting less than 80% on a test, it was harder for them withhold marks purely on the basis of social prejudice). But I am hopeful that this will change next year and MK will be given the chance to participate and receive marks just like any other kid.

That said, with little more than a week until school starts again I am actually feeling optimistic.

The first reason for hope is that we now have ground work and have established our credentials as the sort of people that you ignore at your peril. By the end of last year we had jumped through an enormous number of hoops. We had MK re-evaluated and re-labeled by local folks. I joined a local autism parents group and was coached on what to demand and who to pester at the Board of Ed. We finally got an IEP meeting with less than a month of classes left, to which we dragged a psychologist to testify that MK was neither stupid nor crazy. We also had to advocates from the Developmental Disabilities Association, who had coached me before the meeting on what to expect, and who played the role of polite but not-to-be-messed-with enforcers, both at the meeting and in follow up calls to the school. Although very little was actually decided at the IEP other than the fact that MK now has a half-time aide assigned, we did not loose any ground. By which I mean that the views of his poorly educated, ignorant and unthinking teachers, who would have liked to have his curriculum "modified," which is to say, who would have like to stop teaching him on a permanent basis, were not accepted.

The second reason for hope is his teacher for next year who, by all accounts, is supposed to be the best in the school. He is only four years out of university so, not only is he not burned out, but he may actually have spent an hour or two studying how to teach neurodeviant kids. He is also said to make excellent personal connections with his students, which may mean that he takes the time to notice what MK does and does not understand.

The next reason for hope is the aide. For the last weeks of last year, MK was given a smart and nurturing aide, who, amongst other things, maintained a Home-School Communication Notebook with us every day. MK's biggest challenge in the classroom is figuring out expectations, both academically and socially. Having an aide to make implicit expectations explicit should help a lot.

Although the schools here do not believe in standardized measurement, the federal goverment does have standardized tests for Math and English. (The school is required by law to administer the tests, but has an official policy of ignoring the results.) When MK took these earlier, he tested above grade level in math, but about a year and a half behind in English. That is not actually an earth-shattering delay, especially considering that they teach different curricula in Canada and the US, but it was enough to support the teacher's claims that he was behind, which in turn supported thier contention that he was unteachable. This week, however, MK redid his federal test and is now testing at grade level in English. Hopefully, with locally administered tests showing the MK is a kid of normal intelligence and performing at or above grade level in all measured subjects, his teacher will not insist on withholding academic instruction and marking this year.

On the social front, we are also making major progress. The rejection, shunning and teasing that MK got early on at school made him totally unwilling to risk more of it. He completely lost interest in his peers. With quite a bit of work on this end, and the very useful suggestions of MK's new aide as to who might be up for a play date, MK has some friends. I have to admit that he is not exactly enthusiastic about his peers, and generally needs a fair bit of cajoling before meeting with them, but last night he had fun at a birthday party and as I type this, he is over at another friend's house and has not yet called asking to be picked up early. If one or more of these boys ends up in his class next year, things will be much easier, and just having a few people in the school who you can consider as friends has got to be reassuring.

On top of it, MK has achieved a number of personal accomplishments over the past year. He has learned to be a good downhill skier. He setting high scores on the DDR machines in the local arcades. He taught himself video editing and has an impressive number of fans and subscribers on YouTube. All that has to raise his self confidence, which should in turn lower his socal anxiety.

All this is not to say that there will not be any challenges. Consider the conversation MK and I has this morning when he came down with his polo shirt both inside-out and back-to-front.
Go take a look in the mirror and see if you can see anything that needs fixing.
(Looking in the mirror) Hmmm, is my underwear showing?
Can you see you underwear?
Then it is not showing. Look at you neck. Do you see anything odd.
Touch your neck.
(Touches armpit.)
That's not your neck. That's your armpit.
(Poking at his armpit with conviction) This is my neck!
Your neck is the thing that connects you head and your body.
(Taps his shoulder.)
That is your shoulder. Your neck is the part of your body that includes your throat.
(Touches his throat.)
Now look in the mirror. Do you see anything odd about your shirt there?
(Looking carefully) No.
So, in short, while there is still reason to suspect that MK's school year is not going to be entirely free of challenges, there is also reason to hope that it will be more like his grade four year than his grade five year.


Niksmom said...

Well yes, Martin, I can see from your conversation w/MK that there may still be some challenges. sure sounds like you've done an enormous amount of laying of ground work to give MK a better year this year. And the accomplishments he has achieved are no mean thing. Way to go Martin and MK! We'll be watching and keeping our fingers crossed here at Nikshouse!

A Bishops wife said...

In a perfect world, parents would teach their kids about diversity. However, they do not--that is reality.

In a perfect world, teachers would take time for kids who need it. However,teachers just do not have time for those who need time. They are too busy.

We have to love and accept our children. People and their kids, can be so mean. Experts are sometimes just plain stupid and life can seem adrift.

We are really not so different.

Steve D said...

It sounds like your son is growing up to be a very nice young man. Good for him!

Gwenith (aka The Littlest Balloon Girl) said...

I'm glad to hear that things are at least sounding more hopeful for this school year! I hope that MK is able to enjoy having friends and that the school year starts well :-)