As opposed to Chicago, Israel's school year started two weeks ago with no strikes or threats of strikes. My 5 1/2-year-old son has started his last year in kindergarten, and this time, he's integrated in regular education. This has been a long time in the making -- for four years, Tal received the best of special education Israel can offer. This included intensive therapy of various kinds -- speech, communication, DIR floortime, art therapy and occupational therapy. Devoted therapists and teachers, as well as low-paid assistant teachers in daycare, made sure my son was loved, cared for, making friends and making progress. The goal of all this was for him to close or narrow the gaps in his communication and social skils brought on by his pervasive developmental disorder (that's one of the names for autism).
And narrowed them he did. He worked as hard as any man, woman or child on this planet, and sometimes without any help, he came up with things that helped him and helped others connect with him. He wrote social stories to help himself overcome difficulties and fear, like the "taxi book" he prepared for the first time he rode in a taxi to daycare with another caregiver. He made observations that helped me understand where he stands and how he feels -- "Mommy, I don't want to grow up, I want to stay little." He used his unusual learning abilities to process things that are usually dealt with by the emotional part of the psyche until they became ingrained in him.
Part of Tal's "Taxi Book" which he prepared to help himself deal with a new experience last year
By the time the last school year was over, Tal seemed ready for the next challenge. So I worked like a devil to make sure my part was in place: I trekked to every kindergarten in our registration area and asked the teachers to meet me for a talk. I asked other parents and sometimes children in those kindergartens. I went to talks and lectures about integration. I read "manuals" and helpful tips. Luckily for me, the community of parents of autistic children in Israel is highly active, informed and powerful. I used their help while learning how the system works. And the system worked decently. I was offered a couple of choices of kindergarten, but I insisted on checking more. I also insisted on speaking personally to the teachers in question and met with them.
What I discovered was that in the grinding machine of the education system, there are helpful people with good will. There are wonderful, caring teachers who wanted to have my son in their class, and considered the so-called challenge a pinnacle of their career. I found out that even people who don't seem nice at first are capable of rising up.
So two weeks into the school year, Tal is happy. He's in a class of 31 children, whereas in the past four years he's been in groups of six or eight. He made friends within a week, and the children in his group already asked him to come on play dates -- and so have their parents. He goes there happily and comes out happy, telling me about the interesting things he's learned, about the games he played and the friends he has. It seems as if he needed this challenge of mixing with lots of children in a much less controlled environment, of overcoming his little frustrations and of seeing the needs of others, not just his own.
Yesterday, his wonderful, wonderful teacher called to update me on his progress. She told me that Tal helped another boy who was upset. Tal told him, "I'm your friend" and helped soothe him. I cannot think of a better gift for the coming Jewish year than knowing that your child is a caring, helpful friend. I wish you all Shana Tova -- a happy, healthy and a peaceful year.