Saturday, January 07, 2006

What a Difference a Year Makes . . .

At some point I had mentioned that Sweet M. had a truly difficult last year at school. In fact, she gave new meaning to the word difficult. She was screaming and flipping out and trying to hurdle herself down the stairs just about any time her routine was broken or she didn't get her way. In fact, strike the word "difficult" and replace with "horrible."

By June we were being called to come and pick her up and take her home from school early at least three times a week. It's hard to do much else when you have to be on call to pick up your kid three and four times a week. It was just hellish.

The school said they weren't equipped to deal with this behavior. Not at all equipped to deal with it. They asked us to start looking for a new school. (More on that in another post.)

So imagine my surprise when, not long ago I was picking up Sweet M. after school and I ran into her teacher Robin (not her real name) in the corridor before I got up to the classroom.

"You won't believe this," she said, "but M. is the most popular kid in the class."

After I pulled my jaw up from the floor, I said, "You're right. I'd have a really hard time believing that."

"No, really, it's true," Robin said. "She has all the kids in stitches doing comedy routines and pretend magic shows."

"M.—doing magic shows—you've got to be kidding?"

"Yes, she does pretend magic. And earlier in the week she was leading the class in pretend calisthenics. Helen (the other teacher—not her real name) and I were wondering if you do exercise videos at home."

"Nope—there's not an exercise video anywhere in our home."

So what's the difference between this year and last year?

• Stellar teachers.
• Enough girls in the class that girls make a quorum.
• M's medication is finally properly dosed.

And, last but not least,

• Big ole birthday party early on.

Let's take these things one at a time.

Stellar teachers in that her teachers adore her, and get her, and truly want to find a way to help her learn despite her formidable auditory processing challenges. Robin and Laurie are totally committed. It makes such a huge difference. And Sweet M. has a bit of that wonderful student-teacher transference . . . she has a crush on Laurie . . . and that helps, too. It is thrilling to see you kid get a crush on a teacher, just like a neurotypical kid would.

Enough girls. The first year Sweet M. was at her school, she was one of two girls in a class of twelve. Naturally she and the other little girl, Elise, became very close. In her second year Elise's family helped have a close friend of Elise's accepted to the school. So that Sweet M. would not be the odd girl out, the school decided to put her in a separate class, which turned out to be a disaster.

Sweet M. was, I think, completely bereft over her separation from her friend—though the school thought this level of grief wasn't possible. The class she was placed in had all new children, so it looked to the children, and to M., as though she'd been held back and separated from her friend. Although her school says no one is ever held back, the kids know better. But this year M. was in a new class with some new kids, some old kids, and seven girls in a class of twelve . . . so there are options of various kids for her to hang out with. She's even having play dates.

Medication finally dosed correctly. This is actually worthy of its own post, but I'll mention it here. M. had been taking Paxil in a liquid formulation for her anxiety for several years. Last year we were required by our health insurance plan to get our medications from a mail order Rx company. When we changed to the mail order Rx plan the bottles of medication were odd. Sometimes the medication was really thick—almost like yogurt—and sometime it was really thin—almost as thin as water. It didn't matter how much you shook it up—it was never the same thickness. Turns out her dose was all over the place for more than a year. Now she takes the medication in pill form.

Big ole birthday party. In M's first two years at her school we hadn't done a big birthday party for her. The New York City kid birthday party extravaganzas—worthy of an anthropological field study of modern day potlatch—were just too much for us. Too expensive. Too labor intensive. Too extravagant. So we'd done other, more modest and self-contained things for her birthday.

But this year M. had been planning her party for six months. She wanted to have Care Bear party stuff (she's 8 years old, but one day she's going on 3 and the other day she's going on 13—see the Autism Powers post) and we'd started keeping a list of what she wanted from at least as early as May for a November party.

When the big date began to approach, I asked what she wanted to do, and she knew immediately: "Rock climbing at Chelsea Piers." Oh, god, I thought. How am I gonna swing that? This has got to be the most expensive birthday party in the city. But oh well, finances a shambles, we went ahead and did it.

I think this has radically enhanced her social opportunities in the class. She seems to feel centered, assured, beloved, honored, and important. The kids had a blast, and she was central to that. Call me overly academic, but the power of the potlatch—the conspicuous display of wealth and destruction of surplus (though in our case it wasn't exactly surplus we were destroying!)—continues to establish social patterns.

That self-satisfied look that comes from climbing the mountain.

So in spite of her significant speech-language delay and processing problems, Sweet M. is now, at least for the moment, a social butterfly. I love this photo, that shows that sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.

Who could have guessed from last year's vantage that this would ever be possible? I am crossing my fingers that she continues on this trajectory and reminding myself: Never give up on your kid—you just can't know what will happen.


kristina said...

People--put "education professionals" at the top of the list--just don't get it that kids on the spectrum are as aware as, well, the rest of us (if not more in some ways). I partially trace Charlie's decline in his old classroom to the changing student population--from 7 kids to 5 to 7; one girl; Charlie often ended up the oldest although his speech and skills were still "lower." About a month after each of the 2 boys his age left, he had a big breakdown (I am overfamiliar with the school calling me---only to take him home in summer school--me and the nurse know each other well.)

I see the power of the potlatch at work in our having spent a couple of Ivy League colleges' tuitions already to pay for all that Charlie's autism education needs! (Most happily--nothing like spending money you don't have.)

Cheers to M, the sweetest social butterfly on the block!

MothersVox said...

I know Kristina . . . I was simply amazed when someone at the school, who shall herein remain both nameless and roleless, said that it was just impossible that M. could have been bothered by being in a class where she was 1) separated from her friend, and 2) obviously not advancing with her age group. Sort of stunning, really.

I'm so glad you and Jim have found a good school for Charlie. It makes all the difference.

Maybe we can meet at Chelsea Piers sometime and take the kids rock climbing. Sometimes we organize to do that at the drop-in classes on Saturdays . . .

MothersVox said...

Thanks Suzanne. I don't know if it was the party, or one of the other factors, but it did really seem to help. "Party on" is my new motto for her . . .

Anonymous said...

such wonderful news! i am so proud of M!