Growing up as a child who went to school in the 90s, there was definitely a stigma around special education. Autism diagnoses were much rarer back then, and you maybe saw one or two kids with ADD or ADHD in an entire grade. Most people had never even heard of Sensory Processing Disorder. At least, that is what it seemed like to me, living in my world as a developmentally typical student. The few kids who did need extra help existed in another world to me. I didn’t really understand what challenges they and their families faced.
What I did understand, however, were labels. And the label of being a kid who needed “special education” was full of stigmas. The stigma of not being smart. The stigma of not being normal. The stigma of not being able to cut it in the regular world.
I would like to think that I was a kind person in my younger days, but I am sure I had my moments of looking down on those students who couldn’t cut it in a regular classroom. Maybe I thought, if only they worked harder. Or they are just making excuses. Or why do they get extra help?
As someone who had a relatively easy time in school, I often failed to comprehend why others might struggle. I didn’t know that many students learn differently and that didn’t make them any less intelligent or curious or eager to achieve than me.
I gained a whole new perspective on how kids learn, after having two kids of my own.
My oldest was a very high needs baby who grew into a very demanding and willful child. “Spirited” was often the way I described him, but it was much more than that. This was a child who could never sit for more than a few minutes at library story time. This was a child whose tantrums were never-ending and fueled with ear-popping shrieks.
I like, many first-time parents, thought this was just a kid being a kid. As he got older, and the behavior issues persisted, I thought, maybe I am just a bad parent. Then, I started researching some of the challenges he was having, and discovered he might have Sensory Processing Disorder, or at the very least some sensory challenges that impact how he interacts with the world. I learned that he is far from the only child who seeks out or avoids certain sensory input, and that I myself, probably have some form of SPD myself, which I hope to write more about soon.
My oldest, who started Kindergarten this fall, is beginning to benefit from some of the services his school has to offer. We are in the process having him evaluated for additional occupational therapy, and he already uses a school-provided wiggle cushion and seat band to help him learn more effectively.
When my son first told me about his “special chair,” I braced myself for tears. I waited for him to share how weird he felt or how the other kids made fun of him. To my delight, he was not only happy, but excited about his new learning tools. When I volunteered in his classroom, his classmates were supportive and even enthusiastic to tell me all about his special chair.
Instead of being alienated, my son had a way to channel some of his energy and has been better able to interact appropriately with his classmates. In this age of constant news of bullying and cruelty at our schools, I am heartened by the kindness of these students.
If kindergartners can accept the different needs of their classmates, as no big deal, than so can I. I realized I was holding back on seeking help because I feared what others might think. And, if any other of my son’s peers learn differently, I hope he will be just as understanding.
My youngest is facing his own albeit very different set of challenges. At two years old, he qualified for early intervention speech therapy services. Although, he seems to clearly understand what others are saying, getting him to talk has been an ongoing challenge. I am amazed by the progress he has made under the guidance of his fantastic therapist. And, while he still qualifies for continued service through our school district, I am confident he will thrive.
I am still learning what makes my kids tick, and what might set their clocks off by a minute or two. I don’t know if they will adjust and go on to have fairly typical life journeys or may need a little more support with the help of professional therapists, doctors and educators. What I do know is that by acknowledging and naming their specific challenges I am helping them find their best path toward success.