Anyone who knew Ashley as a student in our public school system knew that she got mad occasionally. She would try her best to hold it together, but sometimes that autism pops out. As the years went on her needs changed, her issues were different and things became more complex socially, academically and in many other ways. If she were still in our public school system she would be getting ready to start the 8th grade. It’s an exciting time, the year before high school. It would be her last year of middle school, she would be the big cheese on campus. But more than a year ago we made the decision to change things for her. This time last year, when she should have been starting at the middle school and going into 7th grade, she started at a new school instead, a school for kids with autism. Middle School is a pivotal time in a child’s life, it’s when they start figuring out who they are, what they like, what makes them tick. They have stronger ideas about who they like and who they want to associate with. Kids this age can make poor decisions and succumb to peer pressure or find their niche in sports or in a school club. Some students are carefully planning which courses to take to set them up for success in high school and college. They are starting to think about their dreams and ideas for the future.
Things are different for Ashley. She has some of those same dreams and ideas, but she is different, she does have autism after all. Her path to the future will be a different path, it won’t look the same as everybody else’s, but we hope that she will find her own niche and her own success.
It became clear that Ashley needed other academic options and supports. She needed to be taught in a more specialized way, in a different kind of school. A school that is suited to meet her needs; socially, emotionally and academically. A school where she wouldn’t be the girl who stands out but where she could actually fit in. A place where she would be comfortable in her own skin. I believe that as a parent you can do your child a great disservice by not accepting them for who they really are. Leaving our school district wasn’t what we wanted or hoped for at all. When I look back on Ashley as a preschooler, in kindergarten and elementary school, that certainly was NOT the plan. To be honest, it made me very, very sad to consider taking her out of our school district. Yet, here we sit, a year later and I can tell you with absolute certainty that it was the right decision for her.
A very wise friend once told me “You can’t un-know what you know” and I knew that her needs we’re becoming more complex as she got older and she needed to work on various aspects of her disorder and have things taught to her in a certain way. If we wanted her to have a chance at a decent future, we had to do it. But I’m not going to lie, my dream was for her to be successful in public school, again that was MY dream and MY DREAM was not in her best interest.
So, a year ago we sat Ashley down and with very carefully chosen words we explained that she wouldn’t be going to the middle school. She wouldn’t be entering 7th grade with her friends. “We found a school that will be better for you.” She was a little sad and she had questions and I took lots of deep breathes and held back my tears with all of my might as we explained…“The school you will be going to is for kids just like you. This school will be better for you, it’s smaller, quieter and will be a better place for you to learn.” She looked at us with her big blue eyes and said, “But I won’t be with my friends anymore” and my reply was, “No, but we can still see your friends if you want AND at this school you will make new friends and your new friends will have autism, just like you.” Ashley knows she has autism, she understands that her brain has developed differently. That is what we explained to her at a very young age and she understands. She spent her last few years of upper elementary school constantly comparing herself to the neuro typical girls. She wanted to be their friend of course, but didn’t have the social, emotional or conversational skillset. She knew they were growing at a rate that her developmental delay couldn’t keep up with. She was often sad and jealous and although she was never made to feel less by any of her peers, she did. I know this because she would tell us many different times, in many different ways. I think it must be like being the poor girl who is forced to live in Beverly Hills. You know you don’t fit in and no matter how hard you try you know you never will. And yes, she had friends that were nice to her, but those friends weren’t going to be there to teach her the life-skills she needs in the community or how to live like a functionally independent adult.
Friends are nice, but she is going to be 14 and this where we find the fork in the road. It is here and you need to make a decision, and this is your child and the decision is on you. Make the right choice mom and dad, don’t screw this up. She needs every opportunity to succeed and you only have until she is 22…tick tock, tick tock…I only have one chance at being Ashley’s mom and the decisions Joe and I make as her parents are crucial to determining her path for the future. Not only did pursuing and achieving her school placement come at a significant cost and sacrifice to our family, but it tore me apart in more ways than you can imagine.
Thank God for giving me the smarts to marry the man that I did, because when I would start to wonder and say, ”Well maybe we could do this?” Joe would say, “Shiela, but we did that.” And when I would say, “Maybe we could sign her up for that.” He would say, “Remember when we signed her up for that other thing?” I would cry and question everything and he would hand me the tissues and review the answers with me… again and again, over and over. We knew what we needed to do for her and we knew why. I am still sad that her path is different. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but I am glad that she is where she is. Sometimes the best decisions in life are the hardest ones and I’m learning that more everyday.