I’m looking at options for my son who will attend middle school next year. I’m having some uncomfortable flashbacks of what it felt like to look for preschools and later elementary schools. Somehow every transition to the next grade span is extremely difficult when you have a child with special needs! Why does it have to be this much work and so mentally draining?
Most typical parents will say, “It is hard for us too.” But when you have a special needs learner you have fewer options. Many people ask me, “Why don’t you send your kids to private school?” They are usually quite surprised when I tell them private schools don’t have to take kids with special needs. They can legally say no to you just because you need support. I have heard the “We don’t take kids like yours/IEPs/special needs” lines a few times already this year. Why does it sting so much even though I already know they don’t have to take us? Seems unfair especially in this climate when equity is discussed daily. Does equity cover us? If not, why?
In some ways I understand that private schools don’t have the resources but what I really want these administrators to say to families like mine is this: “We would love to give your child a chance. Can we assess him and see if this is a fit? Can we try for a week and then decide if this placement would work for all?” I am hoping for some decency here. And somehow these administrators don’t have decency or the class it takes to be kind. One woman actually said to me after I told her my son had an IEP, “Do you even want to do the tour, since we won’t take you?” I took the tour because of her insensitive comments.
The sad reality is that some administrators just look the other way once you mention the words “special needs.” It still hurts to see this behavior even though I’ve become quite tough over the years. But I still want to crawl back into my fetal position when I get home and to feel that rejection alone in my bedroom. I work through the initial bitterness and then I pick myself up, smile at my beautiful children as though nothing has happened and I put some French fries and chicken nuggets into the oven. I don’t share these feelings with them because it is simply too painful and I see no good that could come from it. They are young and preserving their confidence and innocence is always important to me. Confident children do perform better in the classroom. I take the hit for the team. “Keep going, Melanie. You will find a place for them to belong.”
I hate having to work this hard at something I consider so basic. Fundamentally I do get angry because this takes so much energy. Why do I have to search so hard to find a place for my children to belong? They happen to be incredible and capable learners. If I didn’t tell you he has autism or that she has dyslexia you might never guess. Meeting their needs is quite easy if you know how to teach and differentiate instruction.
Some people say, “Don’t tell the school about their special needs.” Why should I have to lie about their needs? I wouldn’t even consider this option because that sends the message that having special needs is something to be ashamed of. We are proud of our son. We are proud of our daughter. And they both have special needs. We will not be ashamed of how our brains work. I will continue to teach them that they are perfect just the way they are. Actually, everyone’s brain learns differently. Yet we all have valuable contributions to make in a classroom.
One of the biggest problems facing educators and schools is this: they don’t want to differentiate. They want a one size fits all approach and they expect you to fit into their one way or else hit the highway. This is especially true for private schools. Why do we accept this as a society? Why don’t we say, “No, one size does not fit all.” The only answer I can come up with is parents are afraid. They are afraid someone will reject their child. No one wants their child to be rejected. So no one says anything out of fear. It’s a terrible cycle of failing our children!
I talk to special needs parents often. I try to be a supportive community member and my goal is always to be inclusive of all. Inclusion has always been important to me because I was once a teacher and I understand the beauty of creating a rich, diverse class community. I understand the importance of making everyone feel needed. Students perform better if they feel needed in their classrooms. I have seen this firsthand. I purposely made the weakest reader in the classroom the leader in a group. Kids don’t expect this and are often shocked by this decision. “He looks like a strong leader. I choose B.” Not surprisingly, B became the strongest leader. Why does this happen? It happens because we allow it to happen. Kids step up to the opportunities we give them. They shine when we believe in them.
I struggle now because I am searching for a school that will say these words to me and I have yet to find it. “We want to get to know your child. We want to assess him and see what he knows and what he still needs help with. We want to meet your child and find out what his learning style is and how his brain learns best. We are excited to hear about your son. Tell us what makes him happy.”
Does this kind of school or administrator exist? I am hopeful it does and I won’t stop looking until I find it. I will find a place that sends this message to our family: “Welcome. Tell us about you. You are needed here.”
Every child all over the globe deserves to feel needed, wanted and included in their classroom. And we should hire educators and administrators who say, we want to meet your child wherever they are on this educational journey. No matter where you are, we will embrace you and we will help your child improve. And it shouldn’t cost $20,000 USD.
Crystal Sanford, M.Ed., M.A. CCC-SLP, ASDCS is an Educational Consultant, IEP & Autism Advocate and Speech-Language Pathologist. She is also the host of inspiring podcasts, Thriving Special Families and Thriving Autism Families! Her passion is advocating STRONG alongside fellow Autism and other fellow parents of neurodiverse children, helping them to persistently pursue what their children deserve at school. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her husband and two children in San Diego, CA.