Dissecting a Victory

So today was the big day. We had our eligibility meeting at the school to determine if our fourth child, a third-grader, qualified as being on the autism spectrum according to the school district’s definitions. And I’m happy to report that the IEP team (consisting of the school psychologist, the speech therapist, our son’s teacher, the assistant principal, our private psychologist, and Katie and me) all agreed that he met the district’s criteria for being identified as ASD.

A Good Day.

On one level, not much has changed as a result of this new designation. He is still receiving the same services he received under his previous designation as “Language Impaired.” We’ll revisit his Individualized Education Plan later in the school year to see if he needs more help than he’s currently receiving.

But having him identified as being on the autism spectrum is also a safeguard for the future. Should things go downhill for him in the social/emotional sphere, as it has done for our older daughter, school officials will know that part of it is because he has autism. And that will alter the way they intervene and how they will help him.

Should he run into further glitches in his auditory processing, his short-term memory, or his ability to adapt to new surroundings (like changing classes in middle school), it will be that much easier for accommodations to be put in place to help him.

And since kids on the autism spectrum tend to be literal thinkers, it will be easier for him to access special-ed helps as the curriculum begins to demand more inferential thinking and not just rote memory or quick calculations. He can learn these skills, but he’s probably going to need more help in making the jump from the literal to the figurative.

So this was a good day. It was a long time coming, too—the fruit of a couple of very tense preliminary meetings and hours and hours of preparation on our part. It came after we had to challenge the previous assistant principal’s thinly-veiled insinuations that we didn’t know what we were talking about and that she was the real expert in autism. It came after a couple of years of seeing his school-related melt downs increase in frequency and intensity. And it came on the heels of two similarly long-fought victories for his older brother and sister. That makes us three for three. Quite a lot to celebrate, don’t you think?

Walking a Rocky Road.

So why, as Katie and I left the meeting with our son’s new designation in hand, did I not hoot and holler in victory? Why was there a lump in my throat instead of a smile on my face?

Because my son still has autism. Because yet another official organization has recognized—and thus reminded me—that he has a disability that will impair him for the rest of his life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad for what we did. It’s going to protect our boy through his entire educational career. It’s going to open the door to a set of services and accommodations that will help him learn how to live in this strange world filled with neurotypical people.

But I know that through that door lies a path of misconceptions and of challenges that I wish he would never have to face. A path where potential friends may not understand him and may even reject him.

A path where potential employers may not see the gifts he has to offer.

A path where the joys and comforts of a family of his own may be forever elusive.

It’s a rougher, rockier path than most of his peers will be walking. And that’s never a fun thing to think about.

A Sobering Reminder.

We got a stark illustration of this just a few hours after that all-important IEP meeting. Katie called me at work to let me know that our boy had had a rough day at school. Because he didn’t complete a homework assignment over the weekend (we thought he had), he received a 40% grade.

It wasn’t a huge assignment, and it wasn’t a big deal. But in his literal brain, it was a complete and total failure. He came off the bus with his fists clenched, his brow furrowed, and his jaw trembling in a heartbreaking mix of anger and shame. Katie tried to help him work through it, but the rest of the afternoon was a complete loss: melt downs over new homework, high-pitched tantrums at his “annoying” younger brother, and anxious, hyperactive “stimming” that was so intense that I was afraid he might hurt himself.

He did calm down eventually, and we got his homework done. In fact, once he got all his frustration and anxiety out, he sailed through most of the work. He’s a pretty smart kid, after all. He just needed to expend himself before he could get his brain back in gear.

So this is the challenge he will be facing—and Katie and me along with him: how to manage the down side of his autism so that all his gifts and talents can shine. Because he really is a sweet, innocent, affectionate, intelligent, perceptive fellow. He has so much to offer. There is so much he can accomplish. He has the potential to enrich the lives of countless people. He just needs more help than most in getting there. He may have some serious glitches, but he’s an awesome kid. I just want everyone else to be able to see that.

It’s our hope that today’s “victory” will help this happen.