– She never doubted he would make it –
An autism mom’s heartfelt thank you to the teachers who helped shape her son’s future.
This past week my Facebook timeline has been filled with photos of proud parents posing with their children, diploma in hand. 2015 graduates in their caps and gowns, surrounded by friends and family celebrating their success . . . myself included, my youngest graduated this year as well. Watching your child walk across the stage to receive their high school diploma is something parents dream about. We look forward to it, anticipating the day they cross that proverbial threshold into what will be the beginning of their future as adults.
For some of us, it’s a milestone we weren’t always certain we’d see. We hoped for it, we dreamed of it, we fought like hell for it. Our children had to overcome obstacles most of their peers weren’t faced with as they navigated their way through the busy hallways of high school. Our children were different, our children . . . have special needs.
Some of us were at one time or another, told our child likely wouldn’t do certain things, keeping pace with and graduating with their peers is often one of those things we are told not to get out hearts set on, so when it happens, the emotions that accompany the occasion are raw and real and overwhelming.
We worked hard and our children worked hard and we didn’t do it alone. Along with doctors and speech therapists and occupational therapists and many more, teachers become an intrinsic part of our lives, we know without their support and willingness to learn and grow alongside our children as they help guide them and teach them, the winding path we travel would be much harder to follow.
The following letter is from one of those grateful parents who was blessed to have those special teachers in her son’s life, teachers that helped her help her son to become a successful student, a son she was able to watch receive his high school diploma despite the odds some said were against him.
Her words are heartfelt and filled with grace and gratitude and it’s my honor to share them . . .
An open letter to the Burrillville School District…
To the whole of the Burrillville school department,
I’ve struggled for many years thinking about what I would say if this day ever came, struggled because how do you explain to a group of people how their actions – whether they realize it or not – have positively impacted your family’s life in such a way that was never thought to be possible? The alternative path my son’s life could have taken had he not had the support of his teachers, aids, student supports, and even the custodial and kitchen staff, would have been greatly different from the future my son now has. Had My son been placed in a contained classroom he likely wouldn’t be the young man we have now.
If you were one of the few doctors and or therapists who once told me my son would never function; that I was in denial and he was profoundly autistic – I’d know EXACTLY what I’d say to you. That statement is one I’ve had clearly planned out for years for obvious reasons – they were clearly wrong, and my son graduating shows just how wrong.
But you, (several teachers and staff names omitted) and the staff at A.T. Levy, W.L.Callahan, BMS, and BHS? You all had a hand in changing my son’s life, and that leaves me both beyond grateful and speechless.
Despite autism, my son was given a shot other kids before him rarely, if ever, were given. It required going against everything we knew about autistic kids and pushing my son to the limit. It was often even demanded of him that he learn how to function alongside his neurotypical peers. This was no easy task. My son didn’t even allow anyone to touch him until he was two. I’ll never forget that day because it was the first time my child hugged me, and it was a hug his father and I had fought for. He didn’t speak until he was almost 4. No independent or unprompted speech until 6-7-8. He was defiant and belligerent. He was not an easy kid. He was “the bad kid” in those early years. No one wanted their kids to play with him because everyday their children would talk about how my son had gotten in trouble, or did this, or did that. There were no invites to birthday parties or Halloween events. It was a truly lonely time. His behavior was so bad that I basically attended second grade with him. The principal at W.l. Callahan and I? We go way back.
There were days I left that school and just cried in the parking lot, sitting in my car. No matter what I did I didn’t feel like I was really helping my son. There were no guidelines for mainstreaming an autistic child and we were all out of our element. I once cried to XXXX-XXXXXXXX (second grade teacher) about how I was afraid he’d end up in jail or worse – because I was failing him. I was really afraid for that kid. No one, including myself, really “got him” at the time. How would he succeed if we (the adults in his life) didn’t know how to help him?
Everyone likes to give me the credit for my son getting to where he is, but the God’s honest truth is that I could have never done it without the help from his teachers, principals, and other staff over the years. You’ve allowed me to parent not only during a time when it had become politically incorrect to parent – but to do so without fear of saying the wrong thing to my own son. I didn’t have to tip-toe around my own child. If I felt he knew better? No one questioned that. If I felt he had to be held to a certain standard? You all backed me. That alone made a huge difference because it taught my son that the adults in his life were a united front. A “village” if you will. A wall – unmovable.
I didn’t want my son’s disability to be an excuse. You all backed me. I’m sure there were times when you didn’t necessarily agree with my stance, but you still backed me. Those simple actions taught my son that the adults in his life were not budging. It taught him the hard lesson that actions have consequences and that the adults in his life were going to hold him to a higher standard. No one was going to save my son from the consequences of his actions, and it was the fact that his family, and his educational staff both had certain expectations – that taught my son a sense of responsibility. There was no “out” for him. We stood together like the Great Wall – we stood strong and united.
Though there have been teachers who’ve retired after 180 days with my son, those teachers, though utterly exhausted most times, were still good to my boy. I’ve had a few tell me right to my face that he was the toughest kid they had ever had in all of their years of teaching – but each one of them also genuinely enjoyed my son, even if he exhausted them.
These final years – High school. “It’s been a long, strange ride.”
Wow! What a challenge! I sit here at my dining room table looking at something I never thought I’d see. I keep touching the silky blue and white tassel and I can’t help but cry as I think of the little boy with the big brown eyes who was never supposed to graduate with his “normal” peers. And here he is, he’s graduating at a young, 18 years old with his “neurotypical” peers. He’s made it! At least this far. That in itself is really something. 20 yrs ago, my son walking down that stage with his peers would have been unthinkable. He likely wouldn’t have even been allowed to attend a typical school back then. That’s really the reality autism parents once faced. It was the forced nightmare, to know your child had locked potential that no one was willing to try to unlock. You all, from custodians to teachers, aids, kitchen staff, office staff, ect., you collectively changed the life of not only my son, but our whole family.
So as I sit here thinking, wishing beyond anything to find the words to express to you all what you’ve done for my son, all I can think to say is “thank you.”
Thank you to each and every single one of you who saw more than autism when you looked at my son. Thank you.
Thank you for your patience, faith, dedication, and fierce determination. If at the end of today, you feel as though you haven’t made a difference in the world – you’re wrong. You’ve changed my son’s world and I know you’ll continue to change others’ futures as well.
With my deepest love and appreciation,
An Autism Mom.