NOTE: We hope your kids and grand kids have had a smooth start to back to school.
By Norman Roberts
Weston will be fifteen next week. He started high school last week, at a brand new school for kids with autism after several years of home schooling. He went every day, was happy at drop off, stayed all day, and came out smiling for pick up. To say his parents and grand parents are thrilled would be an understatement. The best part is that so is Weston. He is ready to go back this week
His favorite class is music. Weston has always been musically talented, not a child prodigy but with a strong sense of rhythm and a real love for the keyboard. His parents limited his access to it for fear he wouldn't do anything else but that doesn't seem to be a problem in his new school. He is also singing and responding well to comprehension questions from his reading and math teachers.
Weston is what is called low verbal. He speaks but not much and for several years has limited himself to monosyllables having to do with wants and needs. Early on he was prone to echolalia, repeating something he had heard, often endlessly. He came home from school one day reciting Hey Diddle Diddle over and over again. He doesn't do that any more but has made little progress toward typical conversation despite years of effort from his mother and speech therapists. That's one reason the school is so important. We are hoping a new level of interaction with course work, teachers, and kids his age will stretch him to develop inter-personal skills he hasn't had before.
With eight students and five teachers the school is expensive and Weston's parents can't afford it. Nothing new there, they have been broke since he was a toddler and his autism first became evident. Insurance didn't cover autism therapies until recently and at $18-20,000 a year it was a big bill for a young couple, wiping out their 401k and teacher retirement funds. Only one of them could work full time. The school is even more.
They will manage though, as they always do. They've managed to get some scholarship money and should be able to get some public funding for special needs education which Weston will be eligible for until he turns twenty one. That will be problematic in the short run because the school is new, and because the public education lobby is very jealous of its near monopoly on such funding.
We consider ourselves fortunate. Weston is intelligent and can learn, the trick is to present material in such a way that it is interesting to him and he will learn, without the stress that can easily cause a meltdown. His first week at the new school was very encouraging on both fronts.
Our dream now is that by the time he is an adult he will have the life skills to live on his own and have meaningful work, perhaps in a community that caters to autism.
Such communities are desperately needed, just as schools like Weston's are. Once rare, now everybody knows a family affected by autism. Most of them have no place to go. Public schools can't really handle them and the early cohorts began turning twenty one around 2011. Only the "high functioning" adults can work and many, no one knows how many, are far from high functioning.
None of this is likely to change until the public begins to realize the autism epidemic is real and that it is a public problem, a very large public problem. For every story about a football player moving over to have lunch with an autistic kid who was sitting alone, anyone from the autism community can tell dozens of stories about kids who aren't having lunch alone in school because they aren't in school. If we can get more of them into schools like Weston's with the hope of a measure of independence as adults that will be a very good thing.
Norman Roberts and his wife live in Texas. Weston is their youngest grandchild, whose parents are retired teachers.