My son has spent the last two and a half months in regular kindergarten after four years in special ed. The transition has been smooth and delightful: He's well-behaved though very active in the daily routine; he has made friends very quickly and has been to play dates at friends' homes as well as our home. Most of all, he's happy and content. The challenges have been few and far in between and were easily solved by his wise kindergarten teacher with the help of warm, loving and small staff. We just celebrated Tal's birthday in a big party with another girl from his class, and it was a very loud, happy occasion.
What I would really like to tell you about is not my son's progress, but of the lessons I've learned from his experience, as well as mine.
Coming from special education, where the groups are tiny -- six or eight children compared to 30-35 in regular education -- I had to adapt quickly to a world that seemed like a parallel universe. Where other parents just drop off their children outside the door or come and stay just to make sure their kid isn't crying, I stayed in a bit longer and observed so I could learn. I wanted to learn how my son reacts to other children; where he misses cues and signals; who could be a potential friend and how to explain to him that certain behaviors are unwanted -- because he tends to imitate other children and sometimes gets carried away with excitement.
I watched, and learned a lesson I couldn't have learned before: that not all "normal" children are "normal." There are so many variations in behavior, in self-regulation, in sensory profiles, that the spectrum outside of the autistic spectrum is a wide open ocean. At the age of 5, children are complex human beings, micro-cosmos of almost everything we encounter in human society.
What is so interesting about this, you might ask? Well, if you spend years with special educators and therapists, you keep hearing from them how your child's every aspect fits the model of special needs. You keep seeing your child through this prism of challenges and difficulties.
Though I knew this all along, the lesson really hit home recently. Our kids might have special needs and challenges, but not all challenges are related to their special condition. Kids, in general, do not fit an optimal mold. There are emotional difficulties -- like overcoming frustrations and delaying instant gratification; there are sensory issues, like perfectly "normal" children who can't bear noise or chew on their sleeves until they reach their knees; and there things like alarming temper tantrums, biting and other disruptive behavior.
A seemingly surprising conclusion I came to over a year ago has now been cast in a much stronger light: In many ways the extra care, coaching and therapy help our special children overcome obstacles that other children just don't get the tools and training to handle. Years of emotional, occupational and play therapy gave my son the means and implements that I see him use on a daily basis. He can often accurately grasp and identify with what other children are going through when they're in distress and sometimes, I see him reach out with his "tool kit" and try to help them.
I'm not naïve; I know that with autistic children, the problems can be pervasive, multi-faceted and multi-layered. I've recently written how happy we are when our children display "bad" but normative behavior, like lying or dissing girls at a certain age.
But it's really important to know, especially when you're at the early years after your child had been diagnosed, that not everything should be attributed to "the condition." First and foremost, they are children. I truly believe that, and maybe that is the reason why Tal's integration has gone so well, despite the fact that I had been told just months before that his integration would fail, that the "real" world would be too frustrating and scary for him to fit in.