Bloom and Grow

At Jack’s nap time, I usually sing “Edelweiss” as his lullabye, and I recently heard of or saw a store called Bloom and Grow, from a line in that song, and it made me happy. And that’s our whole point, here, isn’t it? To help him bloom and grow.

So I really can’t remember where I left off in the school saga, but I’ll just offer a quick review, in case I’ve said this before. And if you remember because you’re not a mom and/or your brain works better than mine, just skip this part. So the deal is that Jack was first assessed and diagnosed by a local agency that does “early intervention” for kids under three. We met with them, coordinated services and therapies we wanted through them, and were good. But that was only for about two months, and then Jack turned three. At three, all of that responsibility shifts from the early intervention agency to the public schools, a division called Preschool Services. We started meeting with this new group in February to discuss his current ability levels, decide on evaluations, and draw up an IEP (individualized education plan).

At first, I just took it as a headache. I was warned that some of these people are bureaucrats and don’t really care much about the families they meet with, just stare at their computers through the meeting. But in our first meeting, which they asked us to bring Jack to, one of the women got up and moved to the back of the room to play with Jack, while the others asked us questions and got more background information on him. I got a pretty good feeling from all of these people. They seemed more friendly than I was expecting, and they seemed to genuinely like Jack. Of course, there’s the voice that says, “Who wouldn’t?” But that’s a mom’s voice. These people weren’t his mom, and they really liked him. It was touching, actually.

We had to delay our second meeting, the evaluation, due to a double ear infection and a sick mommy, but they were OK rescheduling. On the new eval date, we had to leave Jack alone in the classroom with a speech and language pathologist, a school psychologist, a special ed preschool instructor, an occupational therapist, and a physical therapist. That made us anxious, and we found out later that it was a difficult hour or so for him, but they were trying to find the edges of his abilities and sort of pushed him to find those limits. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in the room, no doubt.

On the day of the third meeting, in which we would discuss the actual IEP and the team’s recommendations, Brian and I had an argument. He stayed at home with Jack to meet our regular OT, and I went alone to the meeting. It was a small argument, more of a “I’m doing more than you no I’m doing more than you” kind of thing. But there have been many of those since Jack’s initial diagnosis, and we were both frayed and tired. And afraid, too. I went to the meeting expecting to have to fight for any help at all for Jack. I was on edge. And their recommendations tipped me over that edge.

First, I’ll say that my initial impression of their concern for Jack was only confirmed in this meeting. I could tell by their expressions and the words they used that they really loved him and wanted to help him. They also confirmed the earlier tentative diagnosis of autism and paused to make sure that was OK with me. I just shrugged. It’s what I had assumed all along. But I was still caught off guard when they recommended full-time special education schooling for him, five days a week. I balked. All along, Brian and I had said that we wanted Jack to stay where he was. We didn’t want to yank him from a place where he’s obviously happy with only two months left in the school year, only to yank him out again when we move in July. But the team argued that two months at this age is still a pretty big deal and could give him a crucial edge in his therapy.

They gave me a name, a school, an address, a phone number. They encouraged us to take a tour, gushed about the amazing teachers and great environment. I didn’t sign anything without talking to Brian, but I was swayed by their obvious concern and enthusiasm to help Jack. When I called Brian from the road to discuss it, we both cried. We didn’t realize how much help our baby needed. It was hard to face, but we also knew that we wanted all the help we could get for him, and they were offering us the maximum. He called the school and scheduled a tour for the next morning.

We toured the school and honestly, we didn’t love it. The educational director wasn’t available. She was in a meeting. The finance guy, who may have a shade or two of autism himself, was our tour guide. Despite the new, clean facility, there just seemed to be something missing. No one looked happy to be there. We didn’t see any ongoing therapy happening. In the one classroom we visited, the kids were eating lunch and no one really offered to talk to us. Then the guy took us out to a trailer classroom and told us that Jack would likely be placed there. I cringed. He tried the door. It stuck. He pulled harder, and it skidded open. It was dark inside. He said, “Oh, they must be out,” and he flipped on the lights. Groggy kids on cots raised their heads. The teachers didn’t holler, didn’t protest. They just smiled and let us stand there in the harsh fluorescent lighting, waking up their kids. It was odd and kind of creepy. And the tiny windows at the top of the vinyl walls did nothing to cheer me.

The first thing I said to Brian as we walked to the car was, “If he’s in that trailer, my answer is no.” But Brian had a different concern. “Did you see that corn they served for lunch? It was brown.”

So we were back to square one. We called the IEP coordinator. We talked to our case manager from the early intervention agency. I even checked in with our private OT. All three were pretty shocked by our impressions. Apparently this place has a great reputation. We must have gotten them on a bad day. But I don’t ignore my gut, bad day or not. Jack wouldn’t be happy there, and we wouldn’t want to leave him there. It helped us make our decision more fully when we got to his current preschool to pick him up and the halls were overflowing with happy kids and parents and teachers, so much more lively and joyful than the place we’d just left. When we checked in with his teachers about his day, they were beside themselves. “Guess what Jack did today! Look!” One of his teachers held out her phone with a photo on it of Jack patting a baby doll in a crib. Whoa.

This may not seem like a big deal, but for Jack, this is major. Major. Because he has never, ever, ever pretended. Ever. It’s actually one of the hallmarks/symptoms of autism. Kids don’t engage in pretend play, like their peers do. But they told us that he put the baby in the little toy cradle, put a blanket on it, and patted it. Tears stung my eyes. I should’ve kept my mouth shut, maybe, but I couldn’t. Not after seeing that dreary trailer classroom and the groggy kids. “Do you think we could have Jack stay here five days a week?” I asked the teacher. Her face lit up. She told the other teacher. They both urged me to talk to the preschool director, but that they’d be fine with that. They would love that. You see, they love Jack, too.

We had to wait to hear back from the IEP team. Chances were they would say take it or leave it. If you depart from our recommendations, you’re on  your own. They had done their work, and there was no reason to expect more from them now. But we gave it a shot. While we waited, I stewed. What if we take him to a different school, another similar facility elsewhere in the county? We knew a friend who was very happy with her son’s placement at an Easter Seals school. I had divided my options into two possible camps: either Jack would get to stay where he was, and we’d be on our own for therapy, or he would get more intensive help at a different place. I never considered we could have both.

When the IEP director finally got back to us, it was really only a few days later, but it felt like years. He said that if we were willing to have Jack attend his current school five days a week, they could bring the intensive therapy to him there. They would have to revise the IEP and have us sign the new copy. And he was sticking by his recommendation of the school we didn’t like for the fall. That last part doesn’t matter to us because we’re leaving, but we didn’t tell him that. We were just so relieved and so thrilled that Jack could stay where he is, where he’s happy and loved and making progress, but also get more help than we can offer on our own. It’s hard to be a parent, to realize that you need help to raise your kid. But that’s the whole point, right? To watch them bloom and grow.

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