Our anticipated successful return to school was an epic fail. All the preparation, work, and endless hours of planning went down the tubes by 11:30 AM the first day. 2 1/2 hours our boy lasted before he felt the need to phone home. He did managed to stay in the building until 2:00 because he called home instead of our cell phones but all staying did was exacerbate an already huge clutser-you-know-what.
We thought it was all going to happen without incident. The program was in place that Matt learned last year, he went to the school, saw his new classroom, met his teacher, picked out his desk and seemed eager to get going. What happened Thursday morning at 9:00 AM is no one’s “fault” but it is an issue that I don’t think was planned for very carefully.
Matthew’s class was an 8-9 split with him being in the grade 9 part of the class. There was another student in the 8 level of the split that was very high needs. I don’t know all that this little guy lives with but I do remember Matthew talking about him last year and how he was “scared” of him. I don’t know how verbal he is but his most common method of communication is screaming, closely followed by pushing and tipping over desks, kicking and cursing. Matthew came home several times last year upset after hearing B struggle in the classroom next to him and frightened when B would run through his classroom leaving a path of destruction behind him. I knew immediately why Matthew was calling to come home. His text simply said “Can you come get me. I hate this school.”
Matthew and a TA were waiting for me at the front doors when I arrived. The TA introduced herself and stated that it was a “rough day, but tomorrow would be better”. She didn’t elaborate and I didn’t prompt her as I wanted to hear this all from Matthew. When seated safely inside the van he started. He was shaking and the tears started. He was talking much more calmly than I thought he would have been but it was easy to see that he was completely and utterly drained.
Talking with Matthew I learned that 3 separate incidents culminated to make his first day a “disaster”. B was having a hard time getting back into the swing of things and spent most of the day screaming. Matthew explained to me that at one point B had to be physically removed from the classroom by 2 people and put in the quiet room because of the screaming, kicking of desks and cursing. Simply put, this terrified Matthew. It scared him to see B being “carried away” and with his hyper-sensitive hearing the screaming noise pierced through his ears. Stress levels escalated.
At some point during the day his TA asked him if he had ADHD and if he was “on medication for it”. Matthew is a very private person and doesn’t like to share a lot of information that he may perceive as “personal”. I am often reminded of a grade 4 project that required him to keep a journal of everything he ate for a week; a health project I believe. When I tell you he was mortified and flatly refused to do it, I’m not even joking. It was no one’s business what he ate, they had no right to ask, it was an invasion of his privacy – you can see what we were dealing with here. So imagine how he felt being asked in a group of his peers if he was talking medication for a medical condition. He was embarrassed and mortified and immediately had a sour taste in his mouth for a TA that he only met hours before.
If that wasn’t enough there were bumps with the academic portion of the day as well. The Autism Consultant for the school board spent many hours with Matthew between April and June totally revamping his program. Putting his work in separate binders/subject so all his papers wouldn’t be crushed into a ball shoved in his desk was a top priority as Matthew’s organizational skills were very much lacking. For him to have a system in place so he could find his material spontaneously and on his own was a task that had to be undertaken immediately. This small accommodation was huge for him. Having a visual schedule within his sight at all times reminded him of the route his day was going to take; he could mentally prepare for what was coming up next. A timetable with a removable “Today” tag that he could easily move from day to day was placed on his binders. In each of his subject binders material was inserted that focused on his IPP with work sheets to be completed focusing on areas that he needed work on. Matthew was told that this would be what he would be working on and everything he needed would be ready to go for him. When the teacher started doing some Math work that day Matthew asked to get his binder containing the Math he had been working on when school ended for the summer. He was told to “just try” what the others were doing. This was in direct contradiction of what he was told by the Autism Consultant that put so much work into making him comfortable with the academic aspect of his day. What confused and upset Matthew most about this was just the day before he was at the school with the consultant and the classroom teacher was introduced to Matthew’s program and appeared to understand how it was to be delivered and implemented.
One of the above scenarios would have been enough to send Matthew senses into overload. Having the 3 occur in the same day sent his stress level flying. One of the exercises the consultant and Matthew worked very hard on was learning how to recognize when he was becoming anxious, why he was becoming anxious and when to communicate that he needed a break. She again used a visual guide; a picture of a thermometer. When the red was at the bottom of the thermometer his stress level was at a “1”, as his stress levels rose so did the red on the thermometer up to a “5” which would be the top of the thermometer. He was able to identify where he was and he could tell his teachers before he reached number 5 that he was getting upset. It was working and it was allowing him to put a visual to an emotion so steps could be taken to reduce the anxiety and calm him down before a meltdown happened. When he got in the van the first day of school he looked at me and said “The top blew off the thermometer today, Mom.”
So there we were. A disaster that no one was anticipating in our wildest dreams. What do we do now? It was too late in the day to contact anyone once we finally got everything out of Matthew concerning his day. Mike and I talked and talked deciding there was no way Matthew could return to that environment. It was too traumatic for him. He was already uncomfortable in the school and the day’s events certainly didn’t do anything to help.
Much to our surprise the phone rang after 7:00PM that evening. It was the Autism Consultant phoning us wondering how his first day went. She sounded so excited and hopeful when she called. Little did she realize she was about to get an earful. She was shocked and very upset by everything we told her. She understood our decision not to send Matthew back to the school and realized that something had to be done immediately. We explained to her that we were going to get in touch with other board members on our team tomorrow to try to work out what other options we had.
The next few days were spent gathering information, talking to school board officials, doctors, family and friends. Monday at lunch time we heard back from Matthew’s mentor. She had worked tirelessly over the weekend preparing options, reviewing scenarios and contemplating courses of actions that may work for Matthew. After listening to her 3 most viable solutions we knew what needed to be done. Matthew would never feel comfortable in that school. It was time for a drastic change. A new school it would be.
There are several junior high schools in our area with all of them having their own pro’s and con’s depending on what a student needs. For Matthew the decision was made to transfer to Whitney Pier Memorial. It was agreed that the Learning Centre would be a good fit for Matthew with the teacher being experienced in the method of teaching and the type of programming that the Autism Consultant introduced to Matthew. Many of Matthew’s elementary school peers, including his best friend, were students at this school so familiarity with many of them would aid in the transition. Everyone, including Matthew, agreed that this school offered Matthew an educational and social experience that more suited his needs. Finally! We saw a smile! We heard excitement in his voice and we were cautiously optimistic that this could work.
That’s where it all stands now. 7 school days into the year, Matthew has attended one day. The wheels have been moving and everyone has been busy putting all the necessary pieces of the puzzle in place to make this happen. Our new journey begins Monday. Mike and I will be meeting with a team at the new school. The teacher, principal, program-planning team, and the autism consultant will sit with us to make sure we are all on the same page. We’ll be introduced to the school and have some questions answered. On Tuesday, Matthew will have the opportunity to visit the school with his mentor, go through to see the layout, meet some of the staff and be introduced to his class and teacher. Wednesday will be his first day of classes. He’s very much looking forward to a new beginning, as are we.
Everything happens for a reason. What this will all come down to I’m not sure. I do know that this time we won’t take anything for granted. We just can’t. We know that now.
Next week holds some big changes for all of us. I’m hopeful that Matthew’s “First Day of School ~ Take-Two” will be a blockbuster smash!
Until next time…