As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, we are pleased to share this special blog post by Christina Stiles, a homeschooling mom and Time4Learning staff member.
I can remember it as clear as day: the moment a dear family friend, Marta, (who also happened to be a Speech Pathologist, and like a mother figure to me) mentioned, “You know, I am not seeing the typical developmental cues and milestones we could expect for Bella at her age.” This is how a hesitant friend modestly brought up my daughter’s development and what launched my first conversation ever about autism.
I was a new mom, without parents of my own, and did not notice that she was not babbling as a baby should or making eye contact. As is often the case, having a conversation about my child possibly having autism was followed with denial and very upsetting emotions. For many families, it is difficult to wrap their heads around such a life-changing statement. This can cause delays in testing, therapies and intervention, which is crucial at an early age. Some parents simply become too emotional to even discuss such a topic. However, I was fortunate enough to have someone I hold in high regard initiate this conversation. With her help, I jumped onboard, albeit a little worried, but ready to get Bella any help we could find.
This was during Bella’s toddler years and, at that time, the diagnosis could not be provided until the age of five. Up until that age, many challenges facing children with autistic were labeled as “developmentally delayed.” Since Bella was not diagnosed until the age of five, we were unable to tap into the many resources available to help her develop speech and motor skills, and pertinent life skills.
When she was diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), it was more difficult than the years when her diagnosis was unknown. I started to understand how difficult her future may be. As a mother, you want to protect your child, and when there are pains you cannot alleviate and problems you cannot solve, you feel helpless. On my autism journey, I fell strangely in love with the idea of the spectrum, as my daughter would sometimes fall into some categories that many children with autism shared, but then experienced some that were in unique territory. Since not as many girls are diagnosed with ASD, for many years Bella was often the only girl in her classroom. I also loved the idea of a “spectrum” or band of colors, as Bella was infatuated with rainbows and colors and loved to draw and paint. We finally embraced the rainbow and navigated our way through our own personal rainbow, which also included dark clouds and storms, as rainbows typically do.
We were fortunate to live in a county in Florida that provided many wonderful resources for early intervention. There was even a PreK-5 elementary school, which was specifically for students with special needs. After her first two years of preschool, Bella started advancing quickly and, to our happy surprise, was recommended to attend a traditional public school which provided cluster classrooms specifically for students on the autism spectrum.
Bella started her first day of kindergarten like many other students and was taught the basics, but at a different pace and approach than that of a typical student. Bella had a wonderful teacher that year and developed in ways that we were previously barely hopeful for in her academic career. This was the first year we experienced an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting. We sat with teachers, therapists, and school administrators to come up with a learning path that suited Bella’s needs. She then had a wonderful first grade teacher who helped all the students blossom. So much so, that the same teacher remained with the class for the following grade level. Everything was smooth sailing until the middle of third grade.
The content started challenging Bella quite a bit, as well as the expected daily social interactions. Then to top off an already difficult year, our family had to relocate in a competitive housing market where options were limited. We even obtained a scholarship to keep Bella in her school district and drove her 40 minutes twice a day to stay in the same school. This meant long days for Bella, and school was already straining for her. Things as simple as sitting still could be agitating and difficult for her to do. Alas, we spoke with her educational team and concluded that another school would be best for Bella. Many children struggle with big changes, but children on the spectrum who thrive in routine can even digress when faced with big changes, such as moving. This change to a new school would ultimately lead to a heartbreaking year that would eventually lead the family to homeschooling.
Make sure to return to our blog next week to read part two of this special series in recognition of Autism Awareness Month.